Affidavit: Chemist Accused Lab
by Shannon Dininny, Associated Press
A chemist who analyzed sediment samples in support of cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation has accused his former laboratory of falsifying data about a potential cancer-causing agent, according to a federal affidavit unsealed Wednesday.
Last week, federal authorities raided the laboratory operated by Energy Northwest, a public power consortium that operates a nuclear power plant north of Richland. The utility's laboratory also performs an assortment of environmental tests for other companies, including a subcontractor to federal contractors at Hanford, the nation's most contaminated nuclear site.
A special agent for the Environmental Protection Agency filed an application for a search warrant, along with a supporting affidavit, April 5 in U.S. District Court in Yakima. The documents accuse Energy Northwest Laboratory of making false statements, mail fraud and wire fraud related to tests for hexavalent chromium, a potential cancer-causing agent that was used as a corrosion inhibitor in nuclear reactors.
The warrant sought computer equipment and data storage materials, records, manuals, contracts and analytical documents, among other things. An EPA spokesman referred Associated Press calls to the U.S. attorney's office, which couldn't be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Brad Peck, an Energy Northwest spokesman, said he had not yet seen all the documents and couldn't comment fully on them, but he said the company was reviewing the claims to determine if there were problems with employee performance.
"There's some investigation and review that needs to be done, and there are a number of highly capable people looking at it, and I expect in time we will find out if there are, in fact, any issues for us to be concerned about," Peck said. "If there are, we obviously will deal with them appropriately at that time."
The laboratory performed the tests for Environmental Assessment Services, a subcontractor for Washington Closure, which is under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy to aid in Hanford cleanup.
According to the documents, a former chemist at the laboratory contacted the EPA in December 2006 to report that data had been falsified.
The chemist, Richard Toth, worked for the laboratory from November 2002 until September 2006. He left the company after sexual harassment claims were made against him, but contends they resulted from his attempts to bring the falsified data to light over the course of several months, the documents said.
In late 2005 or early 2006, the laboratory began receiving sediment samples from Environmental Assessment Services to test for hexavalent chromium. The tests had to be performed within 48 hours of the samples being collected.
As part of the process, duplicate quality-control samples were prepared and analyzed to show the tests were accurate. But those control samples were off as much as 1000 percent from expected values, proving that the tests were not working, Toth claimed.
According to the documents, Toth raised concerns about the tests with his immediate supervisor, who said he knew the tests didn't work, but the results were turned over to the subcontractor anyway.
The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup costs expected to top $50 billion.
During Hanford's operation, large amounts of hexavalent chromium were released into the soil, where it traveled to the groundwater and the nearby Columbia River. Workers have been pumping groundwater out of the soil and treating it chemically to remove the chromium and stop its flow toward the river. But the agent moves easily with water and is particularly dangerous to salmon that spawn in the Pacific Northwest's largest river.
The lead agencies on the investigation are the EPA and the Energy Department's inspector general. Spokespersons for the Energy Department and its contractor, Washington Closure, declined to comment Wednesday.
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