Maybe it was the glint of sunlight off the gun barrels, or the sudden movement of men silhouetted against the desert sky. Whatever it was that caught Linda Mitchell's eye and caused her to pause by the picture window of her secluded home near Buckeye that day in 1990, the scene outside was terrifying.
There on a ridge, a few hundred yards from Mitchell's house, stood two men with rifles. As Mitchell looked at them with binoculars, they stared back at her through their rifle scopes.
She darted away from the window and locked herself in a bathroom until her husband came home several hours later. By then the gunmen had gone. No shots were fired. Police found only tire tracks where the men had stood.
It was, Mitchell says, just another day in the life of a whistle-blower.
During five years as an engineer at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, Mitchell had served as the plant's self-styled Karen Silkwood--regularly "blowing the whistle" on serious safety violations. Just as regularly, she had been harassed by plant management for her trouble.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Dallas Mavericks
TicketsFri., Oct. 14, 7:00pm
"The gunmen were there to send a final message to me," Mitchell says. "If [Palo Verde officials] were capable of carelessness with a nuclear power plant, I knew they were capable of anything, including murder, if that's what it took to shut me up."
There is no evidence linking anyone from Palo Verde or Arizona Public Service Company, which operates the plant, to the gunmen outside Mitchell's home. But it is undeniable that by the day she fell within those rifle cross hairs, Mitchell had been repeatedly targeted by Palo Verde and APS in similarly unnerving ways.
Mitchell and other Palo Verde workers who have dared to point out safety problems at the nation's largest nuclear-power facility--located 60 miles west of downtown Phoenix--have endured persecution ranging from the insidious to the violent. They have been assaulted and threatened with death. Their cars and homes have been shot at and vandalized. They have received menacing telephone calls. Their careers have been destroyed by demotions, transfers and dismissals.
One employee, after complaining that the pumps and valves necessary to shut down the plant's reactors in an emergency were inadequate, was transferred to a post that exposed her to a higher level of radiation, raising the stunning possibility that managers were using the threat of exposure and contamination to keep workers in line. Another worker was branded a "deviant" by an APS-hired psychologist in an effort to discredit her claims that Palo Verde wasn't safe.
Perhaps most disturbing, the record shows that these accounts of abuse are not isolated. In fact, documents compiled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that nowhere is the problem of whistle-blower harassment more pronounced than at Palo Verde. According to the NRC, Palo Verde has more harassment complaints pending against it than any other operating nuclear plant in the nation.
Palo Verde officials refuse to discuss whistle-blower cases. APS spokesman Mark Fallon says only that "our first priority when employees bring concerns to us is to thoroughly investigate each and every allegation. When an allegation is found to have merit, we feel an obligation to employees and the general public to correct those problems." Yet APS is hard-pressed to give a single example of when that has happened.
The record of harassment against whistle-blowers has been well-documented by federal investigators and judges, one of whom called the treatment of such workers "ugly" and warned that there was a "cancer growing" at Palo Verde "which, if allowed to continue, could become catastrophic."
How catastrophic? A review of whistle-blower complaints at Palo Verde over the past five years shows that most stem from legitimate complaints about safety issues that threaten the public welfare. These workers aren't merely griping about whether a form was properly initialed or whether paperwork was filed on time. If the things whistle-blowers are warning us about come to pass, thousands--or even millions--of Arizonans face exposure to radiation.
According to federal law, utilities like APS are supposed to heed worker warnings. The federal system set up to monitor the nation's nuclear power plants was designed in 1946 to encourage reports by conscientious workers, who are in the best position to spot plant defects. The government simply doesn't have enough inspectors to monitor a plant's every move, so workers are often the only observers of safety violations.
But what pioneer nuclear regulators didn't count on was that instead of listening to their workers, some utility companies, burdened by the unexpectedly high costs of producing nuclear power, would subvert the system and silence whistle-blowers who point out the need for necessary but expensive repairs.
They didn't foresee that for a company like APS, it would often be cheaper to pay comparatively small legal fees to fight whistle-blowers in court than to ante up the millions of dollars necessary to actually fix problems (especially when those legal fees are paid directly to the law firm founded by the family of APS' chairman).
Nor, critics say, did early regulators anticipate that the NRC, the federal agency charged with monitoring the plants, would often prove to be less a watchdog than a lap dog--a complicitous partner in whistle-blower harassment--or that the federal government would create a cumbersome and expensive appeals system for harassed workers, leaving many whistle-blowers with few viable options other than to stifle their urge to point out slipshod plant performance.
The whistle-blowers interviewed by New Times are not wild-eyed zealots bent on forcing the nuclear genie back into the bottle. On the contrary, they are ardent nuclear-power proponents, sober industry careerists who insist that nuclear plants are safe--if they are operated correctly.
They are simply ordinary people with an urgent message: Palo Verde is not as safe as it should be.
"There are two million people who stand to be affected if something goes wrong at Palo Verde," Mitchell says. "We owe it to the people in this state to stand up and scream when a problem could be dangerous to them.
"Palo Verde treats safety concerns raised by whistle-blowers like some kind of joke. But I don't think the lives of two million people is something to joke about."
@body:The alarm went off at Palo Verde early on March 3, 1989. Problems with the Unit 3 reactor sent engineers scrambling to shut it down before it could overheat. In the control room, frantic technicians hovered over switches that were designed to release a dangerous build-up of steam in the plant's generators. But the switches didn't work. A back-up system also failed to open the necessary release valves.
Two workers were dispatched to open the valves manually. But as they neared the valves, they were stopped cold, frozen by near-total darkness. The plant's emergency lighting system had also failed, and the workers were forced to grope around blindly, wasting precious minutes as pressure continued to mount.
Finally, one technician, reaching out in the blacked-out room, found the valve and was able to release the steam. But not before the plant had come perilously close to having a major accident. If the pressure had risen much higher, NRC documents say, radioactive steam and water could have burst through generator pipes and into the atmosphere.
After investigating the incident, the NRC slapped Palo Verde with a $250,000 fine for neglecting to train workers to deal with such a crisis and for failing to maintain the emergency lighting system.
The NRC said Palo Verde had breached some of the most fundamental rules of nuclear-power generation. The agency wrote that the stiff fine was warranted because Palo Verde had been repeatedly warned that the lighting system didn't work. Plant managers failed to fix the system, the NRC chided, even though they knew of its problems. They knew because Linda Mitchell had told them. And told them. And told them--again and again, for more than four years.
The story of Mitchell's battle with plant officials was thoroughly documented by the U.S. Labor Department judge who presided over her 1991 lawsuit against APS. It begins with Mitchell's arrival at Palo Verde in 1985.
A diminutive but fiery woman, Mitchell was brimming with anticipation. A 20-year veteran of the nuclear industry in Maryland, she was eager to begin her duties at the "Cadillac of nuclear power plants" in the desert, where Palo Verde's white-domed containment buildings were then rising. But her buoyant demeanor was soon deflated.
"It took me about a week to see the plant wasn't moving in the right direction," Mitchell says. "I soon found out that plant management didn't care about anything except expense.
"I guess I was naive. Every place I had been, you brought up a problem and it was fixed right away. Here, if you brought up a problem, even if you did it through the proper chain of command and in the best interests of the company, you became the problem."
Mitchell's job was to ensure that the plant's emergency lights, which are supposed to illuminate vital areas during a crisis, were properly positioned and equipped with battery packs that would allow them to burn for eight hours.
"To have a license from the NRC," she says, "you have to have good emergency lights, but I knew the ones we had wouldn't make it for eight hours. So I tried to get management to put in new ones." Copies of internal Palo Verde memos show she was repeatedly rebuffed, despite written and oral pleas to her supervisors.
Frustrated, Mitchell approached Palo Verde's resident NRC inspector, who is available to field complaints if management fails to fix a safety problem. The inspector ordered a test of the lights. As Mitchell had predicted, they failed miserably. Some lights burned for less than an hour before flickering out.
As a result, Palo Verde was forced in late 1985 to write a report to the NRC on the light problems and what steps would be taken to fix them.
"My life became a living hell after that," Mitchell says. "Management took the position that you just don't take things to the NRC. It was almost like I started a war."
For committing the heretical act of notifying federal officials about a serious safety violation, Mitchell was called a liar by a Palo Verde supervisor, who, according to court documents, screamed at her in the plant hallways. APS made minor improvements to the lights, but not enough to satisfy Mitchell.
"They still didn't work right, and I knew it," she says. "But the plant didn't believe it for four years, until the lights failed when they were most needed."
After the March 1989 reactor incident, Mitchell felt confident that a strong rebuke from the NRC--confirming her accusations about the unresponsiveness of Palo Verde supervisors--and the $250,000 fine would finally prompt APS to act. Surely, plant managers couldn't ignore a tongue-lashing like this:
"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.
@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.
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.
Saparito's aggressive manner and whistle-blowing record branded him as a troublemaker at Palo Verde. He has been accused of being a gadfly who battles nuclear plants more for the limelight it brings him than for any concern for the public welfare.
Although Saparito is prone to self-aggrandizement (I am here to save the public from the Palo Verde time bomb," he solemnly intones), many of his claims have been verified by a Labor Department judge, who ruled in his favor on May 10. Perhaps a healthy ego is a necessary prerequisite for taking on a corporate giant like APS.
David Colapinto, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who has sued utilities on behalf of dozens of whistle-blowers, including Mitchell, says stories like Saparito's and Mitchell's show how the "system is broken."
Colapinto calls Saparito's victory, in which the judge ruled that APS discriminated against him, "remarkable." Representing himself, Saparito battled Palo Verde's stable of high-priced lawyers and won.
"It is a testament to the strength of his case that as an unemployed, journeyman technician, he was able to defeat a well-financed opponent represented by the largest law firm in Arizona."
While APS plans to appeal the Saparito case, new charges against the company continue to flow. APS recently settled a harassment complaint by Robert Singley, a security guard whose problems began after he discovered something odd about Palo Verde's security fence, which officials say can't be climbed. While it is true the fence can't be scaled, Singley discovered that it could be lifted out of the ground with ease, leaving a 14-inch gap at the bottom.
Instead of being rewarded for his observation, Singley was allegedly told to forget the incident. When he refused, Palo Verde management tried to fire him. He is now working in the mailroom at an APS building in Phoenix.
The terms of the settlement prohibit Singley from talking about his case, but a member of the plant's security-guard union says Singley was "given an unfair deal" by APS, and shouldn't have accepted the settlement.
"[APS] humiliated the guy when they should have been commending him. But what he pointed out would have cost a few bucks to fix," the union member says. "They intimidated him into settling for next to nothing instead of fighting it."
It is difficult to fault Singley for ending the matter as quickly as possible. His complaint is the most recent on a list that includes unresolved cases dating to 1987.
That was the year that Sarah Thomas, a plant technician, complained to her supervisors that the system set up to monitor the pumps and valves necessary to shut down Palo Verde's reactors wasn't adequate. "We couldn't tell if the pumps and valves--obviously, vital parts of the plant--were performing properly," Thomas says. "And Palo Verde wouldn't do anything about it."
Thomas called the NRC, and immediately began suffering the consequences. She received threatening telephone calls and her car was vandalized. But most chilling, she was reassigned to a new position--one that could mean higher radiation exposure than her old job. Although the exposure levels were still well within the allowable NRC levels, Thomas recoiled at her new assignment.
"Was the plant trying to send me a message with that extra radiation? I don't know," she says. "But I know it scared the heck out of me." A Labor Department judge, appointed to hear her claim of harassment, agreed in 1988 that she had been unfairly treated. He ordered that Thomas be given back pay and returned to her old job.
But because any ruling by a Labor judge is subject to review by the U.S. Secretary of Labor, Thomas hasn't yet gotten any satisfaction from APS. Her complaint has languished in Washington, D.C., for five years, awaiting a final ruling.
The Thomas case illustrates the inadequacies in the federal appeals system for whistle-blowers. The system was devised by Congress as a cost-effective way for whistle-blowers to seek satisfaction--the idea being that rather than filing a lawsuit and enduring years and millions of dollars worth of litigation, abused workers could appeal through Labor for a relatively affordable price.
But whistle-blowers' lawyer David Colapinto says the cure is sometimes worse than the sickness. "It is comical how long it takes to get through an appeal with the Labor Department," he says. "Even though the nuclear-regulatory system in this country is set up to depend on workers reporting problems, the time it takes for a worker to get satisfaction if they are harassed is very foreboding.
"Utilities know what an ordeal it is, and they know that the system is a major deterrent to whistle-blowers."
Unless whistle-blowers have the time and ability to represent themselves, they must hire lawyers. Then they must take their cases to the local office of the Labor Department, where they are almost always given a cursory examination and referred to a federal administrative-law judge.
Then, if the whistle-blower wins in a hearing before the judge, the case moves on to the Secretary of Labor for a final ruling. This final leg almost always takes four to five years, sometimes longer. Labor Department spokeswoman Marjorie Adamson says the delays are because of understaffing. "There are too many complaints and not enough people to study them," she says.
Expenses, while less than litigation, are also substantial. Thomas says she has spent $40,000 on legal fees and other expenses. She warns that whistle-blowers with more complicated cases face higher bills. "I got off easy," she says, laughing.
@body:It isn't difficult to figure out why a nuclear power plant would target whistle-blowers.
Cost-cutting is a matter of survival for an industry that wildly overestimated itself 20 years ago by promising that nuclear reactors would light up the nation with power too cheap to meter. Flaws must be repaired at great expense. Sometimes a reactor must be shut down to make those repairs, and the resulting losses may exceed $1 million per day, a sum that can sometimes threaten the very future of the utility.
Such was the situation at APS in the summer of 1989, when harassment against Linda Mitchell began in earnest. None of the plant's three reactors was running. Unit 3 was down because of the March accident; the other two were idled by the NRC because of similar safety problems.
APS was fighting for its life.
From the beginning, Palo Verde had been a cost-overrun nightmare. Estimated to cost $3 billion in 1973, the price tag ballooned to $9 billion by the time Unit 1 was completed in 1985. Combined with slower-than-expected growth in the Valley, the overruns forced APS to hit customers with several rate hikes during the 1970s and 80s that sparked lasting public bitterness and earned Palo Verde the nickname "white elephant of the desert." Even APS president and CEO Mark De Michele confessed in 1985 that building the plant was probably a mistake.
In such an atmosphere, a whistle-blower complaint like Mitchell's can have an explosive effect. Every time a nuclear plant must write a self-critical report, as APS did when Mitchell first pointed out lighting concerns, it affects the plant's NRC "report card." Bad marks frighten stockholders, make the utility a less attractive investment and deter financiers. The stakes are so high that institutionalized harassment to deter whistle-blower complaints can become sound fiscal policy.
"You have to understand that it is oftentimes cheaper for a utility to threaten a whistle-blower, and then pay to fight her if she takes her case to court, than it is to actually fix the safety problem," Colapinto says. "Plus, if one whistle-blower is made an example of, it has a chilling effect and others are less likely to come forward. Utilities save money in the short and long run."
Colapinto points out that the personal damages awarded in the Mitchell and Thomas whistle-blowing cases amount to less than $100,000. "That's not a lot of money for a large utility," he says.
APS points proudly to an NRC survey this year that found that only a few workers were concerned that they would be harassed if they complained to management. But the NRC's Greg Cook acknowledges that the study was "somewhat informal," rather than a scientific polling of workers, and that it leaves unanswered the question of why so many employees are actually complaining of harassment by filing grievances with the Labor Department.
@body:If there is a systematic effort to discourage whistle-blowers, as Mitchell and others claim, workers should be able to turn to their congressionally appointed guardian, the NRC, for help. But according to federal records and the admissions of NRC officials themselves, the agency often does little to aid whistle-blowers or to investigate their concerns.
According to a 1987 congressional investigation, the agency's unwillingness to get tough on utilities in such cases can be attributed to the incestuous relationship between regulators and plant officials. The report, titled "NRC Coziness With Industry," blasted the agency for "abdicating its role as regulator . . . in some critical areas."
"It is a young and still relatively small industry," Mitchell explains. "Everyone has worked for everyone else, all the top managers and regulators are friends, and there is a lot of movement between government jobs and business. The same names keep popping up again and again."
One of those names is that of Ken Carr, former NRC chairman, who is now a member of the APS board of directors. Mitchell asks, "Do you honestly think that when APS has trouble out at Palo Verde, they don't get Ken Carr on the phone doing damage control with the NRC?"
Mark Fallon says Carr's "experience is certainly valuable to APS. But . . . he would never be able to coercively influence regulators. Nor would he, or anyone else at Palo Verde, try."
Critics say the NRC's conduct in the Mitchell case is typical of its tolerant attitude toward nuclear facilities. Blaine Ballard, who called Mitchell a "bitch," and Tim Hull, who threatened that she could meet the same violent end as the "burn dummy," were given written slaps on the wrist by the NRC. Neither was punished by APS.
In addition, federal regulators, as a matter of policy, often allow a worker to remain in a harassment situation indefinitely. It is NRC policy to refrain from seeking civil penalties against a plant that harasses a worker until after the Labor Department issues its ruling. As in Sarah Thomas' case, that can mean years.
Last year, U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Regulation, demanded that the NRC inspector general look into how the agency handles whistle-blowing cases.
Leo Norton, an inspector general investigator, says the NRC has interviewed 25 whistle-blowers, including several at Palo Verde, and will release a report making recommendations on how the agency's handling of worker concerns can be improved. The report is due in June.
Mitchell says that regardless of any coming reforms, she and the "raped-payers" of Arizona have already paid too high a price. She points out that the money that pays APS' lawyers for their courtroom encounters with whistle-blowers comes from utility bills--in other words, APS customers are paying more so that the utility can fight to delay fixing safety problems.
"The 'raped-payer,' as we call them, gets it coming and going," Mitchell says. "They are being charged ever-higher rates to finance APS' legal battles against those of us who are trying to make the plant safer. I don't think citizens or APS stockholders ought to be too happy about that."
One reason stockholders and ratepayers alike have reason to wonder at the millions of dollars spent on legal fees is that the man who is presumably setting company policy with regard to whistle-blowers, APS chairman Richard Snell, stands to benefit every time a whistle-blower case goes to court. APS' law firm, Snell & Wilmer, is in the family.
Fallon insists there is no conflict, noting that Snell & Wilmer was handling legal work for APS long before Richard Snell assumed the utility's chairmanship. That's true, but only because Snell & Wilmer's founder--and Richard Snell's father--Phoenix patriarch Frank Snell, helped put APS together from a number of small utilities in 1952.
APS won't say how much it spends fighting whistle-blower cases, but Fallon says the legal fees are just "a cost of doing business." He defends the company's relationship to the law firm as a "very old, mutually beneficial one." Richard Snell, Fallon says, has only an "old, tangential relationship" with Snell & Wilmer, and is not currently an active partner in the firm.
But there are signs that some APS stockholders have raised eyebrows at this arrangement, and that they are peeved that their company has doled out millions of dollars on legal wranglings with whistle-blowers. According to company insiders, one group of shareholders raised the issue with company managers in 1992.
In response, APS developed a "corporate strategic activity" report that proposed to deal with the problem by discovering the "root causes" of why "we have people so concerned that they are taking their concerns to the point of litigation."
Fallon says the company wants to "identify where there may be areas at Palo Verde where employees feel they can't bring forward concerns, and take steps to rid ourselves of those attitudes." APS, he insists, is a whistle-blower-friendly company.
But Mitchell, who continues to keep watch over Palo Verde from her home--which is located two miles from the containment domes--says that what APS really wants to do is rid itself of workers who complain. It is possible that that may be exactly what the company is achieving.
One plant employee who requested anonymity says she would "love to come forward and talk about safety problems at the plant," but is afraid to do so.
"Look," she says, "if you worked at Palo Verde, and had seen what some of those whistle-blowers went through, you would just keep your mouth shut, too. They were completely destroyed.
"I know it sounds terrible, but everybody who lives around that plant is just going to have to take their chances. I think workers at Palo Verde are done talking.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.