A jury awarded more than $4.7 million in damages Friday to 11 workers who say a contractor fired them for expressing safety concerns about work at the Hanford nuclear reservation.
The workers say seven pipe fitters objected in 1997 when they were told to install a valve rated to withstand less pressure than was needed for a test of radioactive waste pipes.
The crew was later laid off, but a settlement required the contractor, Fluor Federal Services Inc. of Arlington, Va., to rehire them.
The plaintiffs' attorneys contended that foremen on the job were told they would have to lay off seven other pipe fitters to bring the first seven back. Attorneys for Fluor Federal Services argued there was not enough work at the Hanford site for all the pipe fitters.
The jury awards ranged from $89,700 for one plaintiff to more than $553,000 for another. They sought lost wages, and all but one sought damages for emotional distress.
The suit involved five of the original seven pipe fitters and six included in the second layoffs.
The workers were gratified by the ruling, but dismayed it took so long, said Tom Carpenter, director of the nuclear oversight program for the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a whistle-blower group that sued on behalf of the workers. The suit was filed six years ago but delayed by appeals.
Randall Walli, the foreman assigned to the crew that refused to install the valve, said he hopes the verdict sends a message to managers at Hanford's contractors. GAP said the jury awarded Walli $456,900.
"It's the workers who are putting themselves in danger when things don't go right, and they are the ones, for the most part, who know what they are working around," Walli said. "If they have concerns, they need to be addressed, and they need to be addressed properly."
Carpenter said attorney's fees and a fine would be sought against Fluor Federal Services.
Randy Squires, an attorney for Fluor Federal Services, said the company has 30 days to file notice that it plans to appeal. "The company's view is that it did not retaliate against these people," he said.
The valve that was to have been installed was located in Hanford's so-called tank farms, which hold 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste left from Cold War-era nuclear weapons production. Some of the 177 aging, underground tanks are known to have leaked, threatening groundwater and the Columbia River less than 10 miles away.
The Hanford site was created as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation's most contaminated nuclear site. Cleanup is expected to cost $50 billion to $60 billion, with the work to be finished by 2035.