WASHINGTON — A man who has been entangled in legal proceedings since blowing the whistle on a Brown’s Ferry contractor received another victory last month from the Labor Department but said the system is flawed and doesn’t protect whistleblowers.
James Speegle said he is confident that sooner or later he will be vindicated for airing concerns about possible dangers at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant from work performed by his former employer.
For the second time, a U.S. Department of Labor appeals panel ruled Jan. 31 that Stone & Webster Construction fired Speegle in May 2004 because he raised concerns about the safety of the plant’s reactor cooling systems.
Specifically, Speegle reported his employer was improperly adding protective coatings in critical areas where paint debris could clog emergency cooling pumps and prevent the safe shutdown of the reactor during an accident. He was employed as a foreman for Stone & Webster at the time.
Speegle was fired after he raised his concerns in a number of internal safety meetings and just two days before he reported it to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Department of Labor’s decision is seen as an important victory for whistleblowers.
Washington D.C. attorney David Marshall said the case must now go before another administrative law judge who will determine if Stone & Webster met a heightened standard of proving “clear and convincing evidence” that it would have fired Speegle even if he had not raised concerns about the company’s work.
Those proceedings are expected to begin shortly.
“The issue that remains is whether the company proved at trial that it would have fired James Speegle even if he had not blown the whistle on Stone & Webster’s unsafe practices,” Marshall said. “I don’t believe that’s possible.”
Marshall said that determination is needed because of the way burdens of proof unfold in nuclear whistleblower cases.
“In order to win a nuclear whistleblower case, the complainant needs only to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that his protected activity, raising concerns about conduct that he reasonably believes violated nuclear safety regulations or standards, was a contributing factor in the employer’s decision to fire him,” Marshall said.
Marshall said either party can appeal the administrative law judge’s decision to the Administrative Review Board and likewise, appeal to the 11th Circuit. Speegle’s attorney is confident they will win at each point going forward.
“To be honest, I think the legal system is flawed where whistleblowers are concerned,” Speegle said. “They don’t give us the protection we need.”
He also was critical of TVA for not standing behind whistleblowers.
“I’ve been screwed for 10 years now,” Speegle said. “Where is TVA? They are supposed to be protecting the whistelwbowers. If we can’t speak up without being run off, why should we even help them?”
Marshall said the record shows that Speegle was a valued employee with an excellent performance record. He said there was nothing shown at trial to show that the company would have fired such an employee under the same circumstances.
Speegle worked at the plant in 2004 and has been involved in nine years of litigation as a result of his firing.
Following a week-long trial in 2005, an administrative judge ruled in 2006 in favor of Stone & Webster. The ruling was reversed in 2009 by a U.S. Department of Labor appeals court, known as an Administrative Review Board. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed the decision and sent the case back to the department’s Administrative Review Board.
The board ruled earlier this year for a second time that Speegle was fired for raising safety issues at Browns Ferry.
Russ Corey can be reached at 256-740-5738 or russ.corey@TimesDaily.com.