Tennessee Valley Authority whistleblowers sue agency in federal court
The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Chattanooga. (Photo: Facebook)
Three former Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear oversight managers who were removed from their posts after alerting the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to repeated safety concerns and violations are now suing the utility in federal court.
Melody Babb, Deanna Fultz and Mark Richerson filed suit against TVA late last week in U.S. District Court. They contend they were ousted from their posts in 2019 and targeted for public humiliation in retaliation for their whistleblowing to the NRC and the TVA Office of Inspector General about safety concerns and intimidation of whistleblowers at TVA’s three nuclear power plants.
“Instead of solving the (safety and intimidation) issues, the focus became stopping the identification of them by the (oversight managers) and attacking the messenger,” attorneys Doug Hamill and Billie Garde wrote in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says TVA not only removed the trio from their positions but also disbanded an independent whistleblowing program known as the Employee Concerns Program and “handpicked” overseers of a new program specifically designed to squelch dissent and intimidate would-be whistleblowers.
Under the old program, employees could go to the independent nuclear safety oversight managers with concerns about nuclear and radiological safety violations, and oversight managers would maintain the employees’ anonymity and launch their own investigation.
Under the new program, records from both a TVA Power Point presentation and the NRC show TVA’s new oversight managers will “ask the employee if they wish to remain anonymous or not” and then report the employees’ safety concerns to their bosses rather than independently investigate.
TVA has insisted in statements to employees and the public that the independent whistleblowing program was ineffective and that Babb, Fults and Richerson lacked the “skills and abilities” for their jobs.TVA suit
TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said Tuesday the utility has not yet received a copy of the lawsuit.
“Once it is received, we will carefully review it and will respond appropriately through the legal process,” Hopson said.
TVA operates two commercial nuclear power plants in Tennessee and one in Alabama.
Both the NRC and TVA OIG have accused TVA in various reports of harassing and firing whistleblowers to silence their safety concerns.
The NRC, which regulates commercial nuclear power plants, also banned TVA Vice President Joseph Shea from working in NRC-licensed facilities for five years after ruling he played a “significant role” in the 2018 firing of nuclear engineer and safety whistleblower Beth Wetzel.
The U.S. Department of Labor ruled in the Wetzel case that TVA executives, including its corporate attorney, that “ (TVA) terminated (Wetzel) because of the information she provided during (a) chilled work environment investigation, which happened to include her opinions about Henderson.” The ruling further said “(TVA’s) claim it terminated (Wetzel) because she attempted to attack Henderson’s credibility is demonstrably false,” TVA has since settled with Wetzel.
Babb, Fults and Richerson also filed complaints with the Labor Department after their 2019 terminations, but so far the agency has taken no action.
TVA has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in any of these whistleblower cases.
Lawsuit challenges TVA statements
Babb, hired by TVA in 1995, was tapped as senior manager for the independent whistleblowing program at TVA’s Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee in September 2015.
Fults began her career at TVA in 2004. After serving stints as the independent whistleblowing complaint programs at Browns Ferry and TVA’s Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tennessee, she was assigned in November 2015 as a manager in the corporate division of the independent whistleblowing program.
Richerson was also hired in 2004 by TVA. In September 2015, he was assigned to handle employee whistleblowing complaints at TVA’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Alabama.
The lawsuit says all three were admired and trusted by TVA employees and always logged good performance reviews from supervisors.The lawsuit alleges TVA Chief Nuclear Officer Timothy Rausch, hired in October 2018, met Vice President of Nuclear Oversight Greg Boerschig in November 2018 and “asked for a plan to resolve the regulatory challenges regarding the (Employee Concerns Program, or ECP). Upon information and belief, Rausch raised information brought to his attention from senior managers complaining about the ECP continuing to find problems at the sites that showed chilling effects within the various departments and substantiating employee concerns.
“Upon information and belief, at some point in December 2018 Boerschig, strongly influenced by … Rausch and complaints of other senior managers … decided that the only way to eliminate the increased scrutiny by the NRC and to resolve the OIG findings, was to remove (Babb, Fults and Richerson),” the lawsuit continues.
“The essential story promulgated by TVA was that 1) because of complaints of lack of confidence and trust in the ECP, provided by the workforce in surveys and raised by the NRC, TVA had no choice but to remove them; and 2) that ‘benchmarking’ other high-performing programs in the industry had identified that the (trio of oversight managers) did not have the needed ‘skills and abilities’ to do the job,” the lawsuit states.
“Neither of these statements were true,” according to the lawsuit.
Babb, Fults and Richerson are seeking to be returned to their former jobs and an unspecified amount of compensatory damages for the loss of “their good reputations as ECP professionals,” the lawsuit states.
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