Company official, subcontractor say pilot plant unsafe; workers say they were told to cover up problems

FERMCO ignored defects

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Life-threatening structural defects have been ignored and covered up in the construction of a pilot plant that will be used to clean up radioactive wastes at Fernald.

Officials of the Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co. (FERMCO) have known about structural flaws since the building's concrete foundation was poured in 1994, according to hundreds of the company's internal documents and more than 50 FERMCO photographs obtained by The Enquirer.

A senior FERMCO official connected to the project told The Enquirer that the danger to current and future workers is so great, the pilot plant is ''a deathtrap awaiting its first victim.'' The official requested anonymity to protect his job.

The vice president of the construction company that did work at the plant acknowledged that areas of the building are unsafe, but said FERMCO officials refused to allow his firm to repair the flaws properly.

''That is because when mistakes were made, FERMCO was in such a damn hurry to get this project completed, they wouldn't allow us to fix the problems,'' said Dan Lynch, vice president of the R.E. Schweitzer Construction Co., the subcontractor that did the concrete and welding work on the plant.

''We told them things needed to be fixed, but they ignored us,'' he said.

Mr. Lynch said the plant's porous and chipped concrete floor and walls - including the radiation shielding walls - should have been patched or resurfaced before FERMCO had them repeatedly coated with epoxy.

''FERMCO did not want us to fix those walls and floors like they should have been because they were on this tight schedule and they didn't want to lose money by missing a deadline,'' Mr. Lynch said. ''If nuclear waste spills there, I can't guarantee that it won't seep into the walls the way they are now, even with the epoxy. They should have been patched to protect against that, but FERMCO wouldn't let us.''

Substandard work

Known as Operable Unit 4 (OU4), the pilot plant will be used to vitrify - encapsulate in glass - radioactive sludge stored in two underground silos at Fernald.

The pilot plant is part of the $2.2 billion Fernald cleanup contract that FERMCO was awarded by the Energy Department in 1992.

The pilot plant - estimated to cost more than $42 million when completed - is the test model for a full-scale plant that will be built to vitrify 20 million pounds of the radioactive material at an estimated cost of $190 million.

The orginal estimate for building the pilot plant was $14.4 million. So far the government has spent about $34 million on it. The internal documents and photographs obtained by The Enquirer were compiled by FERMCO from 1994 to the present.

The substandard work has been done primarily by employees of Schweitzer, according to FERMCO's documents. However, FERMCO management has, in many cases, allowed the defects to remain unfixed or accepted substandard repairs.

Among the flaws noted in the company's records that FERMCO managers and employees say still have not been properly repaired:

Several large sections of the building's concrete foundation and walls - including radiation-shielding walls - were built with inadequate or faulty reinforcing bars (called rebars).

Concrete floors and walls - including radiation-shielding walls - are severely chipped, cracked and filled with air pockets into which spilled waste could seep, contaminating the entire building and its workers. Industrial painters were told to put several layers of epoxy on the floor and walls to cover up the flaws. The painters said they were told to ''keep quiet'' about the problems.

Entire sections of walls are cracking, tilting and out of alignment. In several cases, concrete was poured in violation of temperature and timeliness requirements set by national engineering and construction organizations, resulting in substandard and damaged walls.

Substandard and faulty welds were made on pipes, structural beams, metal stairways and even tanks that eventually will hold radioactive material. Some joints have been rewelded so many times that the metal has become brittle and is cracking. One document reveals that unqualified welders from Schweitzer were allowed to perform critical welding jobs.

Piping and other metal work throughout the pilot plant were not properly coated before installation and are beginning to rust. Workers attempting to fix the problem during the past two months failed to properly seal off the area before using a sandblaster and now hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery in the pilot plant has been damaged, some irreparably.

FERMCO allowed inferior and substandard welds, concrete work, piping and equipment that violated its own required design and engineering standards to remain unfixed. FERMCO decided the standards should not apply after a problem was discovered.

FERMCO's quality assurance inspectors, looking for such things as bad welds, often conducted their inspections without the required drawings and specifications because no one had given them the materials. Tests of equipment, piping, welds, etc., often were done piecemeal and not as a complete system, in violation of U.S. Department of Energy regulations.

'Way behind schedule'

The senior FERMCO management source connected to the pilot plant project said that while many structural defects and building problems were identified in 1994 and 1995 by his company's engineers and included in written reports, ''not all the problems were taken care of or taken care of properly.

''One of the reasons these problems have occurred is because this company (FERMCO) is in a hurry to get the pilot plant on-line,'' the source said. ''The company only makes money if it completes various aspects of this project in a certain amount of time. Right now this (vitrification) project is way behind schedule and we have lost millions as a result.''

FERMCO has ''fast-tracked this project and that has meant overlooking substandard and unacceptable work by our subcontractors, or accepting faulty repairs that should have resulted in the work being completely redone,'' the source said. ''The plant is full of problems and I'm scared that someone is going to get hurt.''

In response to Enquirer questions about the problems at the pilot plant, FERMCO spokesman Jack Hoopes said Friday FERMCO has reviewed allegations reported by The Enquirer regarding the pilot plant construction activities. ''FERMCO finds these allegations have no substance.'' In response to questions about construction problems at OU4, Jack Craig, the Energy Department's Fernald area supervisor, issued a statement Thursday.

''The Department of Energy takes The Enquirer's allegations seriously. At this time, we believe the best course of action is to cooperate fully with the pending General Accounting Office investigation to determine the substance of the allegations. Any problems identified by the GAO will be immediately addressed.''

The GAO investigation cited by Mr. Craig was initiated by congressional leaders after a four-day Enquirer series last month detailed numerous problems with the way FERMCO and Fluor Daniel, its Irvine, Calif.-based parent company, are handling the Fernald cleanup. That series reported the companies had created inflated work and cost estimates, phony cost and performance reports, and misused control accounts and charge numbers used to bill the government. The series also reported numerous safety incidents that have occurred at the site.

Dangerous problems

The structural, mechanical and safety problems uncovered by The Enquirer at the pilot vitrification plant were contained in FERMCO's deviation reports, non-conformance reports, quality control evaluation plans, and internal computerized messages between FERMCO officials assigned to the project.

While FERMCO is not required to routinely submit copies of those reports to the Energy Department, officials can request copies at any time for review, said Gary Stegner, the Energy Department's Fernald spokesman. He said he could not say whether all those reports have been reviewed by Energy Department personnel.

The reports, along with sources in the Energy Department and FERMCO, question the quality and safety of every wall in the pilot plant. FERMCO's own engineers and management officials - in their reports - voiced concern about the quality of the concrete; how and when it was poured; and the resulting chipping, cracking and air pockets.

For example, an Oct. 22, 1994, internal message from FERMCO Quality Control Specialist Steve Hurley to his boss, Frank Thompson, about the concrete work being performed that day by Schweitzer employees, said:

''They were pathetic . . . . As the (concrete) truck traversed the forms it continually moved farther from the forms until . . . the chute was too far from the forms for direct placement. (Schweitzer employees) then discharged the concrete onto the ground forming two, 3-foot high piles. Concrete was then shoveled into the forms. Concrete went 25 minutes over 90-minute limit. Thought they were going to lose the placement entirely.''

Time limits are placed on how quickly concrete must be poured to prevent it from setting too fast, causing cracks, air pockets, chipping and failure to adhere to an adjoining concrete section.

Substandard and inferior welding by Schweitzer employees also is a problem that FERMCO officials have failed to entirely address, Energy Department and FERMCO employee sources said.

Scores of welds on building support beams, pipes, and tanks that will hold radioactive material, have been found by FERMCO engineers to be inadequate or faulty, the records show. FERMCO also violated Energy Department rules by allowing the Schweitzer Co. welders to work without providing the company official certifications proving they were qualified to perform the welding tasks.

Despite a Sept. 15, 1994, internal computerized report from a FERMCO pilot plant official regarding unqualified welders who were working at the site, FERMCO continued to allow the Schweitzer employees to work without the proper documents being submitted.

The problem led FERMCO's contract administrator Robert Burns, in a June 22, 1995, letter to order Schweitzer to suspend welding work on a large, pilot plant tank because ''1) An unqualified welder has welded on the tank and 2) The required procedures . . . were not in place when welding commenced.''

Defending his company's work at Fernald, Ron Schweitzer, president of the construction company, said: ''We vigorously refute any statements that we did anything wrong. The problems were caused by FERMCO repeatedly changing designs and work specifications on us. FERMCO did not let us do a lot of the work properly.''

The records also re-vealed that FERMCO officials didn't even try to fix all the problems that were identified by their own quality assurance engineers. In many cases the FERMCO reports noting construction flaws directed the subcontractor to leave the work ''as is.''

Examples, cited in FERMCO's reports, include ignoring smaller-than-required welds and ''corrosion allowances'' in a ''thickener tank shell''; failing to ensure that required pressure testing of pipes as a complete system be conducted; allowing oversized or undersized walls and doorways to remain; allowing structural steel to be delivered and erected without the painting of a required protective ''field coat''; and letting concrete pourers drop the concrete more than 13 feet into forms, resulting in damaged, porous walls.

Other, more dangerous, problems also have occurred. One involves flaws in shielding walls designed to prevent workers and equipment from being exposed to high levels of radiation. Many of these walls were so badly constructed that they are filled with air holes, cracks and some have even ''segregated'' or broken apart from other sections of the wall, according to the reports and several FERMCO employees working at the pilot plant site.

Three Schweitzer employees who worked on pouring the pilot plant concrete told The Enquirer that because FERMCO officials were in such a rush to get the pilot plant built, no time was given to properly ''vibrate'' the wet concrete poured into certain floor and wall sections to remove the air pockets from it. The three asked not to be identified in this story to protect their jobs.

One senior Schweitzer employee who helped pour the concrete, said, ''I'm afraid somebody's going to get hurt, especially when that radioactive stuff starts spilling onto (floor - walls). The waste will seep into the concrete's air pockets and then the whole place will be one contaminated shell.''

All three Schweitzer employees told The Enquirer that radiography (X-rays) pictures were taken only of sections of the floor and walls where the concrete was vibrated properly to eliminate air pockets. Radiography was not performed on all sections.

''Those good pictures are what was shown to the (Energy Department) if they asked to see them, and then put in the files,'' one worker said. ''I don't believe (the Energy Department) knows the extent of the problem. Some (concrete) sections are OK and were vibrated properly, others are not. That's where the problem lies.''

An employee of another subcontractor, who worked at the pilot plant from August to November 1995, said he was speaking out and agreed to be identified because the safety problems being hidden at the pilot plant ''could endanger somebody's life.''

''I was employed as an industrial painter at the pilot vit (vitrification) plant and it was my job to apply the epoxy on the floor and walls as an added protection in case radioactive material spills onto them once the plant is operational,'' said William Stidham of Cincinnati. Mr. Stidham said he was employed by the Fred DeBra Co. and A&J Painting Co. - both hired by FERMCO as subcontractors - to work on the pilot plant. FERMCO records confirm Mr. Stidham was employed at the plant site during that time.

Describing the serious safety problems at the pilot plant, Mr. Stidham said:

''The walls and floor are pockmarked with them (air pockets). . . we call them 'bug holes' and they're dangerous because radioactive material can seep in them and affect the workers and the plant,'' he said.

''FERMCO officials know about the concrete problems, but they told us not to worry about it,'' Mr. Stidham said. ''They ordered me and the other guys (industrial painters) to just keep applying layer after layer of epoxy over the floor and walls to try and cover up this problem. ''The trouble with that,'' Mr. Stidham said, ''is that we can't get the epoxy in to seal up all the (air) holes - there's too many of them.''

Mr. Stegner of the Energy Department said government inspectors were shown some FERMCO photographs taken of the pilot plant and radiography reports, but he could not say whether all the ones depicting structural and mechanical problems had been reviewed by Energy Department personnel.

''We are reviewing all these things right now,'' Mr. Stegner said.

Gene Branham, vice president of the Fernald Atomic Trades & Labor Council, the union representing 650 workers at Fernald, confirmed workers' reports of the pilot plant's substandard concrete floor and walls. He said he also had heard workers express concern about being told to put layer after layer of epoxy on the floor and walls to try to ''cover over'' the problems.

''I have heard these reports from my members, but the company and (the Energy Department) apparently don't seem to want to listen,'' Mr. Branham said. ''They (the Energy Department and FERMCO) were told verbally'' of the problems, ''but nothing was ever done. Hopefully somebody will investigate this now.''


1992: Energy Department selects FERMCO, a company formed by Irvine, Calif.-based Fluor Daniel, as new manager of Fernald site. The $2.2 billion contract is hailed as a model for cleaning up other nuclear weapon sites.

1994: Among other site cleanup projects, FERMCO begins building a pilot vitrification plant to test a process that will encapsulate 20 million pounds of nuclear waste in two silos in glass. Construction problems surface immediately.

Sept. 15, 1994: FERMCO officials issue report after finding that subcontractor used unqualified welders, installed inadequate reinforcing bars in radiation-shielding wall, and the wrong joint in a stabilizing footer.

Sept. 22, 1994: A FERMCO engineer discovers another incident of a radiation-shielding wall built without the required number of reinforcing bars needed to support it. FERMCO tells subcontractor to drill into wall and insert dowel rods as a way to fix problem.

Oct. 24, 1994: FERMCO subcontractor installs anchor bolts into concrete wall and more than 15 feet of the wall cracks and concrete forms tilt.

Dec. 13, 1994: Tons of structural steel were installed and erected without the required protective coating, in violation of design specifications, a FERMCO report reveals. May 12, 1995: Welds on a pilot plant tank are found to be defective and do not meet design specifications. Repairs are ordered. Latest of a long history of welding problems discovered at the pilot plant.

June 15, 1995: FERMCO misses its original pilot plant completion deadline due to construction, design and other problems. The company tells the U.S. Department of Energy that new construction completion date will be Jan. 29, 1996.

June 22, 1995: FERMCO sends letter to R.E. Schweitzer Construction Co. ordering it to stop all welding on pilot plant tanks because unqualified welder was found working on them.

June 26, 1995: FERMCO officials detail numerous new problems discovered in construction of pilot plant, including faulty weld reinforcements; mismatched bottom shell plates of tank. Orders are given to subcontractor to start submitting written repair procedures instead of verbal ones.

July 3, 1995: FERMCO misses deadline of starting non-radioactive testing of the pilot plant. Company officials say problems leading to delay should be fixed for a new test date of March 15, 1996.

Aug. 25, 1995: FERMCO officials issue a report revealing that a subcontractor employee was forced to cut through a pipe to replace a broken gasket below a metal tank that will eventually hold radioactive material. Company quality control specialist says more pipe cutting may occur since design is flawed and that is only way to get to some gaskets. Nov. 27, 1995: The Enquirer reveals that construction, design and equipment problems could delay start-up of nuclear testing process by up to 17 months.

Nov. 28, 1995: Thomas Grumbly, then the Energy Department's assistant secretary for environmental management, calls for an investigation of FERMCO's troubles with the pilot plant. Mr. Grumbly says FERMCO deceived the Energy Department about extent of problems. Jan. 29, 1996: Promise by FERMCO officials to have construction of pilot plant completed is not met. Work to fix problems and complete work continues.

Cleanup plant has structural flaws

The pilot vitrification plant at Fernald, which is expected to test a process to encapsulate nuclear waste in glass, has been labeled a ''deathtrap'' by a senior management employee of the company responsible for building it. Company records of the plant, which is under construction, reveal dangerous problems with welds, concrete walls and floors and tanks that eventually will hold radioactive waste.

Published March 3, 1996.