A Fridge Full of Uranium for Honeywell Employees

Mike Elk

Honeywell workers, pictured here at a 2010 picket line, fear that differing standards among regulatory agencies could lead to a catastrophe—just as they did in April's West, Texas explosion.

On Mon­day, a Nuclear Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mis­sion (NRC) team arrived at Honeywell’s Metrop­o­lis, Ill., ura­ni­um con­ver­sion plant to do a rou­tine week­long inspec­tion. Recent­ly, work­ers at the plant have alleged that the employ­ee refrig­er­a­tor in the con­trol room of the main pro­cess­ing build­ing has repeat­ed­ly test­ed pos­i­tive for dan­ger­ous lev­els of ura­ni­um. But because Hon­ey­well will not allow a qual­i­fied union work­er to accom­pa­ny NRC rep­re­sen­ta­tives on their inspec­tions if the work­ers are on lay­off, the union claims that the com­pa­ny is putting them and the local com­mu­ni­ty at risk.

Dur­ing the last few years, the plant has faced prob­lems with fed­er­al author­i­ties over a series of safe­ty issues. In March 2011, after an inves­ti­ga­tion by the Envi­ron­men­tal Proec­tion Agency (EPA), Hon­ey­well plead­ed guilty to one felony offense for know­ing­ly stor­ing haz­ardous radioac­tive waste with­out a per­mit in vio­la­tion of the Resource Con­ser­va­tion and Recov­ery Act (RCRA)” and paid an $11.9 mil­lion fine to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Two months lat­er, OSHA offi­cial­ly cit­ed the com­pa­ny for 17 seri­ous vio­la­tions for the acci­den­tal release of tox­ic hydro­gen flu­o­ride (HF) gas direct­ly into the atmos­phere out­side of the plant in Decem­ber 2010.

Mem­bers of Unit­ed Steel Work­ers Local 7 – 699, which rep­re­sents work­ers at the Metrop­o­lis plant, claim that hav­ing a specif­i­cal­ly des­ig­nat­ed work­er present dur­ing inspec­tions was the key to at least some of the company’s cita­tions in 2011. The plant, work­ers say, is large and com­plex. Though inspec­tors are high­ly trained, they may miss small but cru­cial details dur­ing their vis­its. Union rep­re­sen­ta­tives, they say, can point out prob­lems known to work­ers that reg­u­la­to­ry offi­cials may oth­er­wise overlook.

So when work­ers found out that the union’s elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tive, USW Local 7 – 699 Pres­i­dent Stephen Lech, would not be allowed to go on the NRC inspec­tions because he is on what the union labels a puni­tive” lay­off, they were out­raged. As union pres­i­dent, they say, Lech talks to more mem­bers of the union and has a more in-depth knowl­edge of safe­ty issues than any­one else.

As the union’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Lech had hoped to speak with NRC inspec­tors direct­ly about the safe­ty risks Hon­ey­well employ­ees face at the work­place. He says that the most egre­gious exam­ple has been in the afore­men­tioned com­pa­ny refrig­er­a­tor, locat­ed in the Feed mate­r­i­al build­ing, where approx­i­mate­ly 20 peo­ple work in ura­ni­um pro­cess­ing. In week­ly tests man­dat­ed by Hon­ey­well, he says, that refrig­er­a­tor has rou­tine­ly yield­ed pos­i­tive results for dan­ger­ous lev­els of ura­ni­um con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. Long-term expo­sure to ura­ni­um, as the EPA points out, can lead to liv­er dam­age, inter­nal irra­di­a­tion and increased risk of cancer.

Nobody wants to share a dirty refrig­er­a­tor in the work­place. Now imag­ine if that wasn’t just dirt, but imag­ine if that was ura­ni­um — that’s the mag­ni­tude of this. It’s scary,” says Lech. 

Lech says that the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion has been exac­er­bat­ed by Honeywell’s refusal to rehire the full-time employ­ees who were sole­ly tasked with clean­ing the Feed Mate­r­i­al Build­ing. Those work­ers were laid off more than a year ago.

The [ura­ni­um] is get­ting spread out all over the build­ing,” says Lech. Nobody is clean­ing it up at the source … This is due to the fact that the com­pa­ny will not put the decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion crew back on staff.”

As In These Times report­ed in August, Hon­ey­well can­celled all sum­mer vaca­tions for its 400 work­ers because it claimed that it was unable to find enough work­ers to fill the shifts it need­ed — despite the fact that 21 union work­ers, includ­ing the Feed build­ing decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion crew, had not yet been recalled. As of Octo­ber, all 21 of those work­ers are still on layoff.

They can’t recall the staff because they would have to recall the union pres­i­dent,” Lech explains, and they are fight­ing tooth and nail to not recall me.”

But the lay­off isn’t just con­tribut­ing to the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion prob­lems. Hon­ey­well is also alleged­ly using it as an excuse to bar Lech from accom­pa­ny­ing NRC on its inspec­tion at all. Though Hon­ey­well did not respond to an imme­di­ate request for com­ment, in an email to Lech pro­vid­ed by the union to In These Times, the plant’s Senior Human Resource Man­ag­er John Buz” Wil­ham wrote:

In regard to your expressed inter­est in attend­ing the NRC Entrance meet­ing today at 2:00 PM, please be advised that in accor­dance with 10CFR19.14 (d), ‘…Each work­ers rep­re­sen­ta­tive shall be rou­tine­ly engaged in NRC-licensed or reg­u­lat­ed activ­i­ties under con­trol of the licensee…’. While we appre­ci­ate your inter­est in attend­ing this meet­ing, you are not an accept­able rep­re­sen­ta­tive under the reg­u­la­tions. If anoth­er union rep­re­sen­ta­tive who is a cur­rent employ­ee of the plant wants to attend the Entrance meet­ing, they should let us know as soon as pos­si­ble and we will accom­mo­date the request.”

Pre­vi­ous­ly, the union argues, OSHA had con­firmed that work­ers, like Lech, who were on lock­out or lay­off were still employ­ees and, under fed­er­al law, eli­gi­ble to accom­pa­ny OSHA on inspec­tions of the plant. In fact, in Feb­ru­ary 2011, OSHA got a war­rant from fed­er­al court ensur­ing that Lech, who had also been tem­porar­i­ly laid off at the time, would be allowed to accom­pa­ny the team.

OSHA has been show­ing increas­ing flex­i­bil­i­ty recent­ly in terms of who [‘walka­round reps’] can be, includ­ing accept­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions who have strong ties with non-union work­ers,” explains Tom O’Con­nor, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Nation­al Coun­cil for Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health. The whole point, from OSHA’s view, is to get the most com­plete and accu­rate info on the hazards.”

How­ev­er, rather than bring the mat­ter before a judge like OSHA did, the NRC elect­ed to side with Hon­ey­well and block Lech from par­tic­i­pat­ing alto­geth­er. In an email to In These Times, NRC spokesper­son Joey Led­ford wrote:

NRC reg­u­la­tions (10CFR19.14) have pro­vi­sions for work­ers or work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives to accom­pa­ny NRC inspec­tors, but if the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the work­ers is not an employ­ee, the licensee must agree. Honeywell’s posi­tion was not to allow the USW local pres­i­dent to accom­pa­ny NRC inspec­tors on-site but to allow a cur­rent union employ­ee to accom­pa­ny our inspec­tor. Yes­ter­day, we doc­u­ment­ed the union’s con­cerns and will be review­ing them. “

Though the laws gov­ern­ing work­place safe­ty inspec­tion meth­ods for the NRC and the OSHA are indeed dif­fer­ent, work­place safe­ty advo­cates say that an incon­sis­tent approach like this to inspec­tions in the same facil­i­ty can lead to key prob­lems being overlooked.

It does seem that some ener­gy indus­try work­ers are caught up in a con­flict­ing web of reg­u­la­to­ry safe­ty agen­cies, with NRC say­ing one thing and OSHA anoth­er,” says O’Con­nor. This is a good exam­ple of why action is need­ed on the recent exec­u­tive order issued by [Pres­i­dent Oba­ma], fol­low­ing up on the West dis­as­ter, in order to ensure that reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies share infor­ma­tion ful­ly and coor­di­nate as much as pos­si­ble their reg­u­la­to­ry and enforce­ment func­tions to avoid this sort of con­flict­ing message.”

As In These Times pre­vi­ous­ly report­ed, sev­en dif­fer­ent reg­u­la­tors were tasked with inspect­ing the West, Texas Chem­i­cal and Fer­til­ized plant, which explod­ed in April killing 15, but because of dif­fer­ent meth­ods of inspec­tions and scope of inspec­tions, key clues were not pieced togeth­er between reg­u­la­tors which could have pre­vent­ed the explo­sion. Ear­li­er this year, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma signed an exec­u­tive order to bet­ter coor­di­nate and har­mo­nize the efforts of mul­ti­ple agen­cies in reg­u­lat­ing safety.

At Honeywell’s ura­ni­um facil­i­ty, four dif­fer­ent reg­u­la­tors — OSHA, NRC, the EPA and the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty (DHS) — are all tasked with per­form­ing inspec­tions, which can lead to vast dis­crep­an­cies in reg­u­la­to­ry approach­es. Until Oba­ma’s exec­u­tive order is ful­filled, hav­ing the same union rep­re­sen­ta­tive present at all inspec­tions could help mit­i­gate this poten­tial for oversight.

This past Sat­ur­day, Hon­ey­well CEO Dave Cote, when asked about his abil­i­ty to incor­po­rate dis­sent into Honeywell’s man­age­ment prac­tices, told the New York Times, If I’m very deci­sive and I sur­round myself with peo­ple who just want me to make deci­sions, then we’ll go off the cliff at 130 miles per hour, because at some point I’ll be wrong.”

As far as Lech is con­cerned, though, that’s exact­ly what’s hap­pen­ing with Honeywell’s approach to employ­ee and com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty. Here at Honeywell’s ura­ni­um plant in Metrop­o­lis,” he said, We are cer­tain­ly dri­ving off a cliff at 130 miles per hour.”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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