CRITICAL

AT PALO VERDE, IT'S OPEN SEASON ON WHISTLE-BLOWERS

"The engineering organization knew of the potential problem [with the lights] . . . but due to internal administrative problems, the issue was not addressed," NRC inspectors wrote to Palo Verde chief William Conway. "The violation . . . is symptomatic of your failure to establish a working atmosphere which demands that identified plant problems are expeditiously resolved and corrected.

"Your past actions on these components appear to have been dictated, in large measure, by expediency rather than by thoughtful consideration of standards that are expected to assure reliability and safety."
To Mitchell's dismay, the criticism fell on deaf ears.
@rule:

@body:"Instead of recognizing there was a real safety risk here," Mitchell says, "the plant just decided to put Band-Aids on the lighting problem."

Plant managers ordered the installation of lights Mitchell says were poorly made, held together with a thin coating of glue. The lights, she wrote at the time, could not tolerate the high temperatures in the plant and were even worse than the old, faulty lights.

Mitchell kept dogging her managers, to no avail. In desperation, she appealed again to the NRC. In response, investigator Charles Ramsey from the NRC's regional office in Walnut Creek, California, visited Palo Verde in January 1990 for an inspection.

What happened next, Mitchell says, indicates how desperate APS was to silence her.

Ramsey testified during Mitchell's lawsuit against APS that he was shocked to see that Palo Verde had installed such shoddy lighting. He also noted that he believed the March 1989 incident should have taught plant officials that defective lighting could lead to loss of control over the reactor. It was clear to Ramsey, who told his NRC superiors about the persistent lighting problems, that Palo Verde hadn't learned this vital lesson.

Court papers show that as Ramsey prepared to return to California, Mitchell gave him a file documenting problems with the lights, and he in turn gave it to Palo Verde officials as a courtesy, with the understanding they would make a copy and return it to him immediately.

When the file arrived back in Ramsey's Walnut Creek office, however, several key documents from Mitchell, detailing the unreliability of the lights and reflecting poorly on Palo Verde management, were missing. The full file was returned to the NRC only after prodding from Ramsey.

APS says the papers were taken from the file by mistake. But an NRC investigation of the incident found that plant personnel had been "at least negligent" in withholding documents.

"At this point," Mitchell says, "I knew things were going to get bad. APS had tampered with documents I gave to a federal investigator. They wanted this issue to go away. I guessed that harassment was going to begin in full force."
Mitchell guessed right.
Disturbing events, later chronicled by the Labor Department judge, began to swirl around her. Palo Verde's director of quality assurance, Blaine Ballard, whose responsibility it was to field workers' safety complaints, called Mitchell a "bitch" in front of several employees and suggested to others that she be fired. Palo Verde management issued a memo urging supervisors to "initiate peer pressure on constant complainers." And at meetings with plant management, supervisors were told that if Palo Verde had to shut down Unit 3 again because of lighting problems, APS could go bankrupt, putting everyone out of a job. Word of this filtered down to workers, who Mitchell says began making threatening telephone calls to her home.

The harassment intensified throughout 1990. NRC documents show that one co-worker, Tim Hull, pointing to a mangled and scorched mannequin--a so-called "burn dummy" used in fire training--warned that "this is what will happen to Linda." Two of Mitchell's pet pit bulls were poisoned. And one night, a car sped past her house, firing gunshots into the walls. Shortly thereafter, the riflemen appeared on the ridge.

"I don't think it was paranoid of me, after all this, to wonder if I was going to die," Mitchell says.

If the situation wasn't quite that dire, it was at least clear that APS was intent on silencing Mitchell. Her supervisor in the engineering department, Dan Smyers, ordered Mitchell and other workers with safety concerns to destroy a report they had written warning of the deficiencies in the lighting. Smyers testified that he was told to "keep a lid" on the report by APS officials.

Smyers, concerned about both the effectiveness of his department and Mitchell's safety, also warned Mitchell to keep a "low profile." Although Mitchell had begun to show wear and tear from the harassment, and was under a doctor's care for stress-related disorders, she declined Smyers' advice and sent a copy of the safety report to the NRC.

Mitchell recalls, "I was sick. I couldn't sleep. But I didn't want to be responsible for a plant that wasn't safe, either. So I kept going."

Mitchell says Palo Verde employees, increasingly worried that her complaints would prompt the NRC to shut down the plant, began haranguing her on a daily basis. Walks from her office to the reactor units became verbal gauntlets for Mitchell, as employees brushed by, muttering insults.

She begged plant supervisors to investigate the threats being made against her, but APS failed to even interview any of the workers who allegedly made threats.

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