Names in the News

Whipping Whistleblowers

A WHISTLEBLOWER at a government nuclear laboratory in Tennessee was unfairly ordered to sit all day in a room of toxic waste and radioactive chemicals to do useless work, the Labor Department determined in January.

 The Labor Department found that Martin Marietta Energy Systems, contracted by the Department of Energy to operate the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), violated the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and two other federal laws. Marietta says it will appeal the decision to the Secretary of Labor.

 The whistleblower, Charles Varnadore, a technician at ONRL since 1974, has publicized lax health and safety conditions at the facility, once appearing on a CBS evening news segment about elevated cancer rates among Oak Ridge personnel. The CBS report followed the release of a study conducted by a North Carolina epidemiologist which found excess cancers among ORNL personnel over the last 40 years.

 After he appeared on CBS, Marietta transferred Varnadore to a room containing radioactive waste. The room was filled with drums of toxic waste, and Varnadore was instructed to test, identify and weigh 717 unidentifiable chemicals. He was stationed in that room for over six months. A health physicist found the area to be unsafe, and, in September 1991, Varnadore was moved to another waste storage room, which contained mercury, radioactive materials and asbestos. Marietta moved Varnadore out of the second room after his lawyers complained in November.

 "It's one of the most horrid forms of repression and retaliation that I've have ever seen," says Edward A. Slavin Jr. of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a Washington, D.C.-based group that works to protect whistle blowers.

Kilovolt Cancer

IN ONE OF THE FIRST LAWSUITS in the United States to seek damages for victims of exposure to electromagnetic radiation (EMR), Melissa Bullock, a 19-year-old woman living on Meadow Street in Guilford, Connecticut, has sued two Connecticut utility companies, alleging that electromagnetic radiation from an electric substation and area power lines caused her brain tumor.

 In the suit, filed in January 1992, Melissa Bullock and her mother, Suzanne Bullock, seek to hold Northeast Utilities and Connecticut Light and Power liable for compensatory and punitive damages for Melissa's condition, Suzanne's emotional distress and the lost value of their home. The lawsuit also seeks injunctive relief to cease the emission of dangerous levels of EMR and disclose important information about the risks of EMR to the public.

 The dangers of EMR on Meadow Street have been chronicled by the investigative reporter Paul Brodeur, who documented a cluster of diseases, including Bullock's, on the street and charged that the injuries were caused by EMR.

Scientific studies have linked exposure to power line fields - which emit high levels of EMR - with nervous system cancer, including brain tumors.

 For 10 years, Melissa Bullock slept directly underneath the power line from the substation that supplied the Bullock home. She was diagnosed in January 1989 as having a grade three astrocytoma, an advanced malignant tumor of the brain.

 "The tragedy of Melissa's cancer is the result of decades of neglect by the power companies," says Michael Koskoff, of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, the Washington, D.C.-based legal organization that is handling Bullock's case. "Melissa deserves compensation, and the public is entitled to know the risks of electromagnetic radiation."

No Time for the Crime

A NEW YORK Onondaga County Court Judge has stirred controversy by imposing a $60,000 fine on a construction company owner who pleaded guilty to negligent homicide. New York law stipulates that criminally negligent homicide can carry a penalty of up to four years in a state prison.

 The defendant in the case, James Polvino, owner of Polvino Construction Co. in Rochester, NY, hired Carl Witherel to illegally dispose of several drums of toxic waste from a company warehouse in Rochester. Witherel was found dead alongside the drums on March 6, 1991, after dumping the hazardous chemicals. Defense lawyers believe that Witherel may have accidentally mixed the chemicals together, with the resulting fumes causing his death.

 Polvino was facing the more serious charge of second-degree manslaughter, which could have sent him to state prison for up to 15 years. Instead he will be sentenced on March 3, 1992 to a conditional discharge, under which he will agree to pay $29,000 to the Department of Environmental Conservation to cover the cleanup cost and $30,000, the amount it took to investigate the case, to the Attorney General's office. There will be no jail time or probation.

 County Court Judge William Burke defends the sentence, claiming that the death was an unintentional chance occurrence. "The man's death was unfortunate, but it really wasn't taken into consideration [in the sentence]," he says.

 - Ben Lilliston