Charles Varnadore, Whistle-Blower at Lab, Dies at 71
Published: August 4, 2013
After Charles D. Varnadore complained about safety at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where he worked as a technician, his bosses moved him to an office containing radioactive waste. When an industrial hygienist recommended that either he or the waste be moved, he was put in a room contaminated with mercury.
Mr. Varnadore fought back, publicizing questionable safety practices at Oak Ridge, a federal nuclear research center that had helped develop the atomic bomb, and his own treatment, which he characterized as retaliation for his outspokenness.
His complaints drew national attention, and he found allies in the federal government.
“I’m going to see that there’s a new day here if it’s the last thing I do on this job,” Steven Blush, an Energy Department official, told CBS News in 1992.
Later that year, the department verified 16 of 26 safety violations identified by Mr. Varnadore, and it ordered Martin Marietta Energy Systems, the contractor the government had employed to run Oak Ridge, to fix all of them.
Mr. Varnadore’s complaints also led to stronger laws and practices governing employees who dare to blow the whistle on powerful employers.
His death at 71 on March 7 drew little notice, however. It went unreported except for a classified advertisement in The Knoxville News Sentinel, and the ad made no mention of any whistle-blowing. Even a former lawyer of his, Ed Slavin, had no idea that Mr. Varnadore had died until learning about it recently. He then told The New York Times.
Mr. Varnadore died at his home in Lenoir City, Tenn., said his wife, Frances. Asked about the cause, she said, “He got tired of fighting.”
His difficulties began in 1990, after he returned to work following colon cancer surgery. He found that his replacement had shortcomings in handling lab samples, and he pointed this out to his superiors. He also complained about his new assignment, operating mechanical arms to handle radioactive materials; he had been blinded in his left eye as a child and had poor depth perception.
“I tried it and made a hell of a mess,” he told The Houston Chronicle in 1993. “I didn’t think it was right for me to make this mess and have other people exposed to it.”
Mr. Varnadore began to receive negative performance evaluations after many years of good ones. He was shunted from assignment to assignment so frequently that he was nicknamed “the technician on roller skates.” In March 1991, he was given a storage room as an office to write reports and keep records of his work as a roving technician. The room contained bags and drums of radioactive waste, as well as bags of asbestos and chemical waste.
Later that month, he appeared on the “CBS Evening News” and expressed his concern about elevated cancer rates among Oak Ridge personnel. In November that year, he filed the first of several whistle-blower complaints to the Labor Department, invoking federal statutes promising immunity.
In February 1992, the department’s wage and hour division ruled in his favor, a judgment that was strongly supported by an administrative judge in June 1993.
“The only conclusion which can be drawn from this record is that they intentionally put him under stress with full knowledge that he was a cancer patient recovering from extensive surgery and lengthy chemotherapy,” the judge, Theodor P. Von Brand, wrote in his decision. “Under the circumstances, he was particularly vulnerable to the workplace stresses to which he was subjected.”
Judge Von Brand sent the matter to the labor secretary, Robert B. Reich, so that damages could be assessed against Martin Marietta. Instead, Mr. Reich dismissed some of Mr. Varnadore’s charges on the ground that they had been filed too late, and he dismissed others because he did not believe that they had been proved conclusively. A panel appointed by Mr. Reich found that while there had been retaliation against Mr. Varnadore, it was not pervasive. It threw out the rest of Mr. Varnadore’s claims, and in 1998 a federal appeals court supported these high-level reversals.
Martin Marietta denied permitting any safety or environmental irregularities. While it did not deny the existence of radiation, mercury and other chemicals in Mr. Varnadore’s offices, it said they were not present in quantities large enough to be dangerous.
Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed in 1995 to become Lockheed Martin. Five years later, it was replaced at Oak Ridge by UT-Battelle, a partnership between the University of Tennessee and Battelle Memorial Institute.
It could be said that Mr. Varnadore lost his case. But Nahum Litt, the Labor Department’s chief administrative law judge from 1979 to 1994, said in an interview that there was a larger lesson to be learned: It is hard to succeed as a whistle-blower.
Most top officials, Mr. Litt said, do not like whistle-blower protection laws. “It didn’t seem to matter how persuasive the evidence might be,” he said.
Mr. Slavin, the lawyer, saw victories in the Varnadore case, nonetheless. One was the Energy Department reforms. Another was a new willingness among nuclear workers to report abuses. “No other whistle-blower will ever be treated that way again,” Mr. Slavin said in an interview.
Charles Douglas Varnadore was born in Tullahoma, Tenn., on March 24, 1941, and after high school, he followed his grandfather and father to Oak Ridge. Known as Bud, he worked at the complex’s massive K-25 plant, which used a gaseous diffusion method to enrich uranium. He combined technical expertise with excellent manual dexterity and often fixed executives’ cars. When K-25 ceased operation in 1987, he was laid off.
He then applied to be a technician in Oak Ridge’s analytic chemistry division and was accepted. His first job was to analyze soil samples from nuclear plants that were being decommissioned. He soon complained that some soil samples were not refrigerated, as was required, and that as a result, pollutants were allowed to evaporate before they could be analyzed. The Energy Department confirmed in 1992 that Martin Marietta had repeated problems preparing soil samples.
Mr. Varnadore also complained that a secretary had been told by her supervisors to put radioactive samples on the front seat of a pickup she was driving. In March 1991, he was assigned to a “home base” — a term for offices used by technicians — that contained the radioactive material. After the industrial hygienist advised that either he or the material be moved, Mr. Varnadore was placed in a room that had been a mercury reclamation center. Visible mercury, which is poisonous to the nervous system, was in several places in the room.
After the Labor Department began investigating his accusations, one question that arose was whether his bosses had threatened to send Mr. Varnadore back to the first office, the one with the radioactive material. Mr. Reich ruled that the threat — if it had been made — did not matter, because the return move never happened.
Mr. Varnadore retired around 2000. In 2003, he was one of 23 people convicted in federal court of conspiring to deal guns without a license. His wife said he had been trying to sell his gun collection. He served 27 months in prison.
Besides his wife, the former Frances Simmons, Mr. Varnadore is survived by a stepson, Chip Bishop.