Whistleblowers Tour Reveals Risks, Importance of Speaking Out

Lachlan Johnson

Students learned the risks and benefits of speaking out about ethical concerns in the workplace on Thursday, Nov. 29 when the American Whistleblower Tour (AWT) paid a visit to campus.

The three visiting speakers talked about their experiences exposing violations at the Hanford Nuclear Site, located only a couple hours away from Whitman College along the Columbia River. The event was organized by senior Genevieve Jones, the Whitman Events Board campus relations coordinator.

“At first I wasn’t very familiar with the term whistleblower, and the more I learned the more I became excited to bring someone to speak,” said Jones. “After talking with Dana [Gold] on some phone conversations we decided to have a Hanford focus to make it a local issue as well as [to include] the wider context of government whistleblowing.”

Walt Tamosaitis and Liz Mattson came to campus to speak about whistleblowing at the Hanford Nuclear Site.  Photos by Tanner Bowersox.

Jones worked with Dana Gold to bring Walt Tamosaitis, a whistleblower from the Hanford Nuclear Site, and Liz Mattson, program coordinator of the Hanford Challenge whistleblowing organization, to campus. Gold, a senior fellow at the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and director of the American Whistleblowers Tour, has visited campuses across the nation in an attempt to bring attention both to the issues raised by whistleblowers and the process of whistleblowing itself.

“Our goal [with the lecture series] is to raise consciousness and raise dialogue around the issue of whistleblowing, and to [help students] realize that whistleblowers are an important part of an effective democracy and promoting institutional accountability, but also to counter negative perceptions and stereotypes around whistleblowers,” said GAP Senior Fellow Dana Gold, the director of the American Whistleblower Tour. “People think [whistleblowers are] tattletales, they’re snitches, they’re in it for their own self-interest, they’re doing it for financial reasons. You’d be better of buying a lottery ticket than being a whistleblower for financial reasons.”

The Hanford Site, where nuclear weapons were developed and built during the second World War and which is now the most contaminated location in the Western Hemisphere and the location of the largest environmental clean-up in history, is less than 60 miles from Whitman. Clean-up of leaking waste tanks at Hanford, which threaten to contaminate the Columbia River, is being carried out by Bechtel Corporation.

While leading research and design for the Waste Treatment Plant project at Hanford in 2009, Tamosaitis spoke out about numerous design flaws, despite Bechtel management’s determination to declare the project finished in order to meet a deadline in the summer of 2010. This led Bechtel management to fire Tamosaitis from the project, moving him to a windowless basement and removing him from the decision-making process. Tamosaitis’ case is not unusual; whistleblowers are often faced with persecution and isolation in the workplace when they bring forward issues which are inconvenient to the organization they are involved with.

“If you get into this situation it’s really important to have a strong support network. I’m blessed with a great wife who supports me tremendously, and we decided we needed to take some action [about the safety issues at Hanford],” explained Tamosaitis.

Tamosaitis worked with the Hanford Challenge, a spin-off of GAP based in Seattle, to report his concerns to the U.S. government. Due to Tamosaitis’ report, construction on the Waste Treatment Facility has been suspended indefinitely as the government examines issues surrounding its construction and considers options for moving forward. Had Tamosaitis not stepped forward, the Waste Treatment Facility may never have run, or in a worse-case scenario could have led to a hydrogen explosion resulting in a nuclear disaster similar to that in Fukushima in the spring of 2011.

Though he is pleased with his decision and would have made it again, Tamosaitis warned that blowing the whistle is not always an easy decision, and had he been younger and lacked the financial and familial security he has, he may have made a different decision.

“Right now I’m not really in the position to be a whistleblower because I need a job,” said senior Sara Portesan, who attended the lecture. “I [feel I am] more likely to be a whistleblower [after hearing the lecture] even though [Tamosaitis] brought up valid points that right now if everyone thought I was a bad employee I might not get a job, and then I might be out of work for the rest of my life. But it would be worth it, right? Or should I wait until I could afford retirement?”

The GAP works to alleviate the difficulties involved with whistleblowing by consulting with potential whistleblowers and helping them decide whether they have the evidence and resources necessary to make an impact and withstand institutional backlash. Through the use of media, litigation and governmental connections, the GAP aims to support whistleblowers with the strongest cases and help them succeed in bringing the issue to light while avoiding the most damaging forms of retaliation such as being fired and blacklisted in the industry. The GAP and the Hanford Challenge have a long history involving whistleblowing at Hanford, as the nuclear waste stored at the site will last thousands of years and affect generations to come.

“It does amaze me sometimes that we’re here, a center of knowledge and learning and enlightenment, and a place that puts a large emphasis on environmental studies, on environmental stewardship, on a connection to place, and literally 60 miles away from us is the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere,” said Visiting Assistant Professor Jesse Abrams. “It doesn’t seem to be part of most people’s experience of living in Walla Walla.”