By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In August 1990, the final blow came. After years of receiving "superior" employee evaluations, Mitchell was informed in writing that she had an attitude problem. Her performance rating was downgraded only three months after she had complained again to the NRC.
For Mitchell, "enough was enough." She filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, alleging that APS discriminated against her by allowing and encouraging a hostile work environment.
APS fought the allegations vigorously during the Labor Department hearings on the complaint. The utility even hired a psychologist, William F. Amberg, who testified that Mitchell was a "deviant" whose abrasive behavior naturally leads to ostracism and harassment. Yet Amberg, according to testimony presented at the trial, failed to interview her or any other Palo Verde employees before forming his conclusions.
In a July 1992 ruling, Labor Department Judge Rudolf Jansen rejected Palo Verde's claim that it had protected Mitchell, and had not harassed her. Jansen discounted Amberg's testimony and wrote that the operation of Palo Verde "could charitably be characterized as being a mess." He added that the "record is clear that APS knew of the harassment of Mitchell . . . and failed to take prompt, effective or remedial action to stop it.
"Something is amiss [at Palo Verde]. There is a cancer growing which, if allowed to continue, could become catastrophic."
Mitchell was awarded $50,000 in compensatory damages--far less than the $1 million she had sought, but still one of the largest nuclear-whistle-blower awards ever--and APS was ordered to cease all harassment. The Labor Department also told the utility to upgrade Mitchell's evaluation. But the vindication did not come cheap.
Mitchell and her husband, Al, say they have been forced to sell real estate, their show horses and a gun collection to pay legal bills. Their savings, along with stocks and bonds, are gone. Despite Jansen's ruling, Mitchell felt the atmosphere at Palo Verde had been forever tainted for her, and she quit her job earlier this year.
For Mitchell, the sacrifice goes beyond material things. She admits to being obsessed by her battle with APS, a fight that seems to have consumed the other facets of her personality. As is the case with others like her, whistle-blowing on Palo Verde has become her job, her hobby, her purpose in life. She is no longer Linda Mitchell, engineer, wife, mother. She is Linda Mitchell, whistle-blower. And it isn't a change for the better.
Perhaps that realization is what Mitchell means when she says her ordeal has "cost me everything."
"I'm not looking for pity," she says, wiping away tears that spring forth after hours of telling her story. "But for just trying to do my job, they took away my life. No Labor Department ruling, no NRC sanctions really help. Nothing can ever give it back."
@body:Linda Mitchell isn't the first to be ignored, or to bear the scars of harassment. Far from it. From the beginning, controversy has raged around Palo Verde, and safety concerns have been at the center of the storm.
As early as 1983, a plant subcontractor was quietly providing information to the NRC and to the press about a broken water main that could have "disturbed" the foundation of a vital building. Since then, whistle-blowers have contributed significantly to information leading to more than $1.5 million in fines assessed against the plant--one of the highest totals in the country.
Currently, 14 complaints are pending against Palo Verde at the U.S. Department of Labor (the most in the nation), filed by whistle-blowers who claim to have been harassed for leaking such information. Although regulators don't have a total figure of whistle-blower complaints that have been filed during the plant's history, NRC spokesman Greg Cook admits the current total is illustrative of Palo Verde's history of worker conflict.
In addition to the prolonged battle with Mitchell, Palo Verde is now hunkering down for a protracted war with Thomas Saparito, who was hired as a contract worker at the plant in 1991. Saparito, a veteran of ten years in the nuclear industry, filed a complaint with the Labor Department after being denied a new contract by APS.
Saparito reported several safety problems at the plant, including an incident in which Palo Verde workers had hammered on devices that monitor reactor-coolant pumps, which prevent overheating.
"These guys didn't know what they were doing. Those are sensitive instruments that must be delicately calibrated, not beaten on," he says. "What happens if the coolant pumps aren't treated right and they malfunction? We're talking about meltdown."
Saparito also says he has seen workers falsify documents, and claims plant officials make excessive requests to the NRC for "JCOs," or "justifications for continued operations." If granted, a JCO allows the plant to keep operating with equipment that is not up to federal standards.
"Instead of shutting down the plant for proper maintenance and fixing the problem, which, as we all know, can cost APS $1 million per day, they just put Band-Aids on equipment. That is incredibly dangerous," Saparito says.
After raising the safety concerns, Saparito--who has also criticized safety procedures at other nuclear plants--says he was belittled by supervisors and pushed into a fence by a co-worker whom Saparito had accused of failing to follow safety regulations.