A community advocacy newspaper for northern New Mexico
Box 6 El Valle Route, Chamisal, NM 87521
Editor's Note: Joe Gutierrez, a longtime Los Alamos National Laboratory employee, tried for many years to make sure LANL was accountable for the safety of its workers and the communities of northern New Mexico and for the quality of its work. This interview details that attempt and the failure of the Lab to implement meaningful and sustained safeguards and work standards.
Joe Gutierrez addresses the audience at the dedication of the Romero Cabin.
La Jicarita News: You recently retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory and are widely known as a whistleblower who helped reveal violations by the Lab during the Clean Air Act lawsuit filed in the mid-1990s. You are also the former head of the Pajarito Plateau Homesteaders Association that filed a lawsuit against the federal government for taking land on which the Lab is built. Before we talk about these issues could you provide some background about how you ended up working at LANL.
Joe Gutierrez: I grew up in Texas and was about nine years old when my family moved to Lovington, New Mexico. I graduated from Lovington High School in 1966 and then enrolled at NMSU. My interests were in architecture and engineering. I met my wife there and after graduation I took a job at the Barnwell Nuclear Reprocessing Plant in South Carolina, which began my professional career. I spent 15 years in the southeast, where I also worked for Bechtel at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant in Vicksburg, Mississippi and hired on with Ebasco Services, Inc., in September 1975.
LJN: Bechtel is now one of the managers at LANL. Did you get along with Bechtel management when you were in Mississippi?
JG: Yes, I did. When I was working there the nuclear power industry was in its heyday, and it was exciting for me to be working away from New Mexico, experiencing new places and cultures. It was a different time and a different situation. I wasn't quite as experienced as I am now. Over the years I've learned a lot about management policies. One of the good things that happened to me when I was working for Ebasco was that I got to join a committee that developed codes and standards for the nuclear power plant industry, and in particular, standards for incorporating concrete containment structures into the power plants. This allowed me to learn about not only how policy was developed but also about the political and social issues that surround it. I'm still a member of that committee. I also became a member of the American Concrete Institute. In 2004 I guided the development of a new guide for designing bridges without reinforcement. For over 30 years I've been involved in many facets of the nuclear power plant industry, including implementing Quality Assurance (QA) standards, which became my focus at LANL, and I learned about the companies and players, both nationally and internationally, who have been involved in policy decisions.
LJN: How did you end up at Los Alamos?
JG: At Ebasco I was functioning as a consultant and a business development manager and was asked to help open up a regional office for my company in Atlanta, Georgia. One of my tasks was to diversify the business into other areas outside the main focus of the company, which at that time was nuclear power, fossil, dams, etc. One of the projects was to help the Savannah River Plant develop its Quality Assurance program. The directive from the Department of Energy was that safety, quality, and cost all went hand in hand. But by then the nuclear power industry was in decline, the country was going through another recession &endash; this was around 1982, 1983, and so the outlook for me was somewhat unstable. Our parents were aging and we wanted to come back to New Mexico to be closer to our families. I applied to LANL and was hired in 1989 in the Engineering Division. This was when the Tiger Team, an investigatory team under the direction of the head of the Department of Energy, was devised to study the issues and problems of all the national laboratories and to emphasize that the labs had to institute good safety programs to protect their employees and environmental safety programs to protect the surrounding communities. I was hired as the standards coordinator in the Engineering Design section to establish a QA program. But almost immediately I became aware that LANL wasn't really interested in implementing a QA program. It was more interested in me providing a public relations image that yes, we have a QA program and we have quality people. A couple of things that I ran into were towards the end of 1989 my supervisor came to me to tell me to slow down a little bit, that the Lab can't take the push that I was making. I'd barely gotten started, but had already encountered resistance towards any kind of QA program by some of the other division managers. Then my supervisor came back to me in the early 90s with the same message, slow down. During this same time I was asked to become the QA Officer for the Engineering Division. So on an institutional basis I began to try to articulate the need for quality assurance policies for not only the Engineering Division but the Research and Development Division as well. That of course met with a lot of resistance. While a lot of money was spent bringing in consultants to supposedly assist in establishing a program, in reality there was very little application in the work place. The Lab went into its ad nauseam study mode. It was beginning to get difficult for me, as I had a job and a task in front of me but I wasn't being allowed to do it.
LJN: If you were the head officer of the Quality Assurance program in the Engineering Division, who was preventing you from doing your job?
JG: The group leaders of the Engineering Division.
LJN: How does the hierarchy at the Lab work?
JG: The Research and Development [R & D] Division receives the funding and they're the ones who develop the broad needs for the facility. The Engineering Division supported R & D in the construction or upgrade of new buildings to facilitate the work. Part of the resistance to Quality Assurance came from the R & D directors because they thought that implementation of QA would result in an administrative cost to them. Many of the facilities at the Lab were old and unable to support the work of R & D, and safety issues were becoming more apparent. The R & D directors didn't like that support people would drive the work instead of themselves. They wanted to maintain control of the work by moving funds where they wanted them. The other part of the resistance came from other division directors, some of whom had been at the Lab since the Manhattan Project, and they weren't going to allow any external entities control the future of the program. This is the human aspect that was pushing back on QA. In my view, a lot of it was arrogance. There is an element of intellectual snobbery, which is something that's very prevalent at the Lab. When you look at the management literature of big corporations and the human behavior behind it, this kind of thing is often described. But there have been very few studies within the national labs, and any kind of independent studies have been actively discouraged. If you look at various audits that have been conducted by the EPA and other agencies, however, you can begin to get an idea of what the problem really is: it's not a technical problem, it's not a funding problem, it's a human behavior problem, the sanctimony of the R & D division that claims no one has the training to question them. During the time I worked to get my MBA here at the Lab I came across a book called the Scientist as Subject, which helped me understand this behavior and how it has resulted in ethical lapses in the scientific community. Eventually, I was removed from my position in 1991 and went to work for the Tiger Team. You have to remember that the Tiger Team was developed at the end of the Cold War when the Berlin Wall came down and one of the big fears of the R & D scientists was that the veil of secrecy was being peeled away and they would be exposed and vulnerable and now they were going to have to deal with things they didn't have to deal with before. Unfortunately, that was also the attitude of the Lab director at the time, Sig Hecker. There was no genuine articulation of the need for QA from upper management. They used the excuse that because the Lab had a QA program in the weapons department that they didn't need QA applied anywhere else.
LJN: In 1994 Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety filed a Clean Air Act lawsuit against LANL for failing to enforce Environmental Protection Agency 1989 emission standards for radionuclides. At the same time you came forward as a whistleblower.
JG: When I blew the whistle it was because QA wasn't being applied in a very critical area. I had found that some of the instrumentation that was supposed to monitor the radionuclides going up the stacks wasn't operating or had been disconnected, and that the records pertaining to the emissions were not available or could not be located, procedures for calculating the radionuclides differed, and people who were applying the procedures were in conflict with one another. Nobody was getting these things resolved. The public was unaware of this and could be exposed to these emissions. You have remember that those individuals responsible for radionuclide emissions were also working in other programs where people were being exposed to radiation, so that behavior extended to other areas beyond what I blew the whistle about. That attitude and behavior was affecting work across the Lab. It's interesting, at the time I wasn't aware of the lawsuit brought by CCNS. When I blew the whistle I disclosed the information to Lab management and proceeded up the chain of command, even to the University of California [at this time UC was the sole manager of LANL], which I never heard back from. I contacted the congressional delegation &endash; Bill Richardson, Jeff Bingaman and even Pete Domenici &endash; but my affidavit was mostly directed to Richardson, who was the congressman in northern New Mexico at the time. What really drove me to blow the whistle was the fact that I'd had numerous conversations with Lab management about the QA program and then I saw an article in the newspaper that interviewed the director Sig Hecker who was claiming that a certain number of stacks were in compliance and that they relied on QA to make sure they were in compliance. When I saw that I knew it was a blanket lie. I had the information that the stacks he claimed were in compliance were in fact the ones that were not in compliance. When they talked about relying on QA, it seemed to me they were going to point the finger at QA, and me, when in fact QA had done everything it could to try and inform management about the problems. CCNS became aware of my affidavit and a reporter told me about their lawsuit. The information was passed on to CCNS and they were able to present it to the judge in the lawsuit who was angry that the Lab had also lied to him.
LJN: That was Judge Meechem, correct?
JG: That's correct. From what I observed he was a pretty fair judge. He wanted the law to be applied correctly. I want to fast forward just to put this all in context. I came to the Lab in 1989 because of my expertise in QA. I left a little better than a week ago, and within the last month I see an audit report from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Inspector General that talks about safety and QA at LANL and that the Lab has not been able to institute a QA program in the last 10 or 20 years. The issues that the report talks about are so critical, and what that tells me is that we've spent an enormous amount of money in trying to establish a QA program and it's been totally ineffective. About the time the Tiger Team was finishing its investigation here I was asked to assume a position at TA 55. But I was explicitly told that they didn't want me to do anything. They wanted to show the Nuclear Safety Board that they had qualified people but didn't want them to actually do anything. I didn't take the job. I became an assessor for QA after the Tiger Team left. Because of that position I was able to visit all the divisions and learn what the status of QA was throughout the Lab. When I look at this report today I realize that the Lab is no better off now than when I was an assessor and saw that there really was no QA being implemented. If you look at the report it's a listing of thing after thing that hasn't been addressed. We've had five or six directors in my 20 years and none of them have cared to solve these problems.
LJN: After you blew the whistle and CCNS and the Lab settled the lawsuit [which required LANL to agree to four comprehensive independent audits to verify whether it is in full compliance with the Clear Air Act] what happened with you?
JG: What was very evident to me was that I was being moved aside and was not allowed to participate in any more assessments and my salary increases were limited. I ended up transferring to the office of Technology and Energy Initiatives program where I was able to assemble a team of researchers who were developing new technologies for the concrete industry. I started to get a lot of interest from the DOE and the congressional delegation in this effort to help the industry; DOE was willing to commit $5-10 million for this program as a match against $55 million from the concrete industry. The Lab, unfortunately, didn't support this effort in earnest. Apparently the steel industry was in competition for funding and was lobbying for that funding, which I didn't know about, and the Lab didn't tell me, and our efforts were undermined. Maybe they worked at cross purposes with me because of who I was, or maybe it was because we were going to be doing research and development for an industry they thought of as a commodity instead of pure research. They saw it as fundamental research opposed to applied research. It would have helped the economy and the country in general. They've come to learn that that was a big mistake. We could have made that concrete program grow into areas that would have helped a number of other programs. But if you're not part of the good old boy network, particularly the good old boy network in R & D, your chances are next to none.
LJN: What about the reaction of the rank and file when you made these disclosures?
JG: Some were quite cold, some were still friendly but kept their distance. Others were supportive but not too up front about it because they knew they could be a target. Some came to me secretly but stayed in the background. In 2003 I was asked to assume the lead for renewable energy. From 2003 to 2008 I helped assemble people who had the appropriate expertise so we could apply for funding in that field. But in 2007 after the new management contract came into being [when the University of California became a partner with Bechtel and other private corporations to manage LANL as a for-profit laboratory], the program office that I worked for was not being funded. I was asked to transfer to the new engineering division, but when I interviewed with them they told me they weren't getting any funding. So I went back to my manager and told him, I'm staying put. But after 2007 they began to give me poor performance evaluations. So I moved on to another office, the Contract Assurance Office, but the same thing occurred. So I filed two lawsuits in 2008. As a consequence of that lawsuit I came up with a settlement that enabled me to voluntarily retire after 21 years.
LJN: What were the grounds of your lawsuit?
JG: One was a claim that the Lab retaliated for my previous activity and the other was that there was no basis for my poor performance evaluations. I had accumulated a lot of documentation that supported both my claims, and while I can't really talk about the terms of my settlement I can say that I did learn that the Lab was very concerned about me going forward with my hearings in court and were willing to settle. I had wanted to stay for two more years and I wanted to retire on my 66th birthday, but the settlement allowed me to retire a couple of years earlier.
LJN: What did you do between 2008 and 2010?
JG: I was in the Contract Assurance office, monitoring the Lab performance under the new management contract.
LJN: What did you find out?
JG: This is going to be quite controversial, but in some areas the Lab was doing well, beginning to put in place the programs, procedures, and personal behaviors that could be successful. But in some of the critical areas, like Quality Assurance, not only were they not meeting performance standards, they had no possibility of meeting them. This is the first time I've said this publicly. I could deliberately and with hard evidence show that the Lab, in many areas, is not meeting standards and the likelihood of it meeting them anytime soon is very difficult. This means not only in operations &endash; safety, environment, and engineering &endash; but the performance in R & D as well. There was also a report issued recently by the DOE Office of Inspector General that in R & D the Lab isn't performing today and hasn't been performing since 2002. The report lists all the incidences that have occurred in R & D and the impacts they've had, and the associated costs.
LJN: What is the fundamental problem at LANL? Is it dysfunctional management, or the arrogance of the scientists or a combination of both?
JG: It's the same issues we've been talking about, and what the DOE Office of Inspector General audits address: safety basis and quality assurance. The management and scientists want hands off. They don't want anyone outside the Lab to have a say in how and why they do things. One of the most interesting things I learned is the R & D at the Lab wants to do everything for everybody in every field and every facet. But they're not getting the funding for that anymore. Because it's a business now you have to focus on what you're good at, not what you want to do. You would have to spend 10 years developing that capability and in the meantime the other labs and industry already have that capability. The other thing that is affecting the Lab is that it's extremely expensive to run. The money that new management is getting paid is ridiculous. They try and compare them to corporations and industry, but the Lab isn't an industry and doesn't need to act like industry. Suddenly the Lab thinks it can be the leader in energy development. But it can no longer take that approach. It needs to partner with people and develop better relationships with other labs because they're the ones that are going to get the funding and decide how to distribute it. That's the attitude and behavior I've encountered at the Lab. Yes, maybe you were number one in weapons but that's not where the emphasis is going to be.
Tewa Women United invites all communities to bring their families and friends to the 14th Annual Gathering for Mother Earth, which will take place starting Saturday, September 25th with a sunrise ceremony and Healing Mother Earth Relay Run, beginning at 7 am, after the sunrise blessings of love and light. The event will end on Sunday, the 26th around noon. Gathering for Mother Earth is located at the Pojoaque Pueblo Gathering Grounds, on SR 502, just west of Cities of Gold Casino Hotel, before Pojoaque High School. This is a FREE multicultural event for the entire family with entertainment, fun, and hands-on activities for kids and adults. There will be arts and crafts and food vendors, special guest presenters from many First Nations, and healing practitioners of all types. Local farmers and growers are also invited, free-of-charge, to bring the fruits of their harvests and set up tables to sell their products. Local community-based organizations will have information tables and booths. Modest communal meals are also provided FREE of charge on both days. This includes traditional "sister" foods of beans, corn, squash, and other fresh garden treats.
Native New Mexican Angela Garcia recently won the 2010 Exceptional First Book Award from PENN USA for her book The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction & Dispossession Along the Rio Grande. She is currently a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California. She and her husband, writer and teacher Ruben Martinez, lived in northern New Mexico while she researched her dissertation and book. According to the Department of Anthropology website, her book "explores the phenomenon of heroin overdose among rural Hispanos in northern New Mexico. By analyzing the relationship between intergenerational heroin users, discourses of addiction, and unequal social relations, she describes a much larger political, economic and social history of a region that has endured centuries of material and cultural dispossession." The book is available at Amazon.com.
Amanda Bissell, Program Director of the Peñasco SPOT for Community Wellness, was recently awarded the Young Nonprofit Professional of the Year Award that recognizes young leaders who demonstrates professionalism and have a deep impact in the community and/or their organization through their nonprofit work. In her role with SPOT, where she began volunteering in January of 2008, Amanda created Project GROW where she mentors high school interns to farm in the local community and distribute the harvest to families in need. She accelerated the food pantry program by taking her personal vehicle on a 150 mile roundtrip to Santa Fe to obtain abundant fresh produce. She spearheaded an initiative and enrolled 600 families in Medicaid in under six months. When the SPOT office needed a change in leadership, she raised funds, found a new fiscal agent, and stepped up as Director. Amanda was born and raised in the Peñasco area and received a bachelor's degree from Colorado College. Congratulations to one of our own.
By Kay Matthews
Funding for the proposed Aamodt settlement may be included in a congressional omnibus bill and voted on this year. The Pojoaque Basin Water Alliance (PBWA) recently faxed its Position Paper regarding the settlement to the New Mexico delegation. The Alliance, comprised of over 400 non-pueblo water rights owners in the Pojoaque Basin, has long been opposed to the settlement agreement that came out of negotiations in 2006. The position paper calls it a "technically flawed and fiscally irresponsible" agreement and lays out its argument that the water delivery system that is the central component of the agreement should be restricted to serve the Pueblos, not the entire basin.
The estimated cost of the Aamodt settlement for studies, design, construction, and operation is $291,200,000 in 2006 dollars. Of this total, the federal government will pay $174, 300,000; the state is responsible for $50 million; the city of Santa Fe will pay $5 million; and the County of Santa Fe will have to provide $60 million, which does not include the county's long-term operation and maintenance costs. Also not included in the budget is a request from the County to the state legislature for an additional $202 million in Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan funding to extend, by 20 miles the water distribution line from the southern Tesuque Pueblo boundary through the Village of Tesuque to Bishops Lodge.
Flawed Technical Approach
PBWA believes that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the promulgation of alternative actions on a project of this magnitude, should have been followed at the outset of the Aamodt proposal. In PBWA's opinion, if NEPA alternatives had been developed a pueblo only water distribution system would have been the technically, environmentally, and fiscally superior alternative to the proposed action. PBWA claims that the Bureau of Reclamation Design, Estimating, and Construction Office technical report does not provide sufficient information regarding the effect on non-Pueblo well water withdrawal on the water table. Additionally, Pueblo water use and supply information is not publically available so that a sound water management strategy can be developed. In the Evaluation of Water Supply and Demand in the Pojoaque River Basin, a report commissioned by the PBWA, it was determined that the current aquifer recharge of approximately 23,000 acre feet annually may be sufficient to maintain the current water table and that the impact of non-Pueblo domestic wells is very small relative to this inflow. The County's demographic report shows that there is little development on non-Pueblo lands, which comprise approximately 12% of the basin, with an estimated .7 to 2% consumptive water use. The PBWA recommends that before over $291 million dollars is spend it "would be prudent to conduct a hydrologic study that addresses the range and sensitivity of water budget components and historical, present, and future water uses and their impacts on groundwater elevations and surface water flows."
Critical to the implementation of the proposed settlement is the importation of water from outside the basin. Santa Fe County has been acting as the water broker in this case and has purchased Top of the World Farm, located in northern Taos County, and proposes to transfer approximately 1,800 afy of groundwater rights from TOP to the Pojoaque Basin. These water rights are from what is called a semi-perched basin and it remains unclear to what extent they are related to Rio Grande surface water, which is what will be diverted to meet the terms of the settlement. According to the position paper, "Not only is this [transfer] technically and fiscally unreasonable it is unconscionable to move waters from one region's aquifer to another's. . . . The PBWA supports stewardship and living within the sustainable use of our local resources."
Failure to Involve Community
PBWA has long complained that the negotiated Aamodt settlement excluded the non-Pueblo community from the "opaque" process that took place behind closed doors. Neither was there an outreach program designed to educate the community regarding the "need" for the project or any kind of public comment solicitation process. Only after decisions had been made was the non-Pueblo community involved in public meetings. The only "inclusive" community negotiations that were conducted were coercive, where the presiding judge characterized the agreement that citizens would be forced to cap their wells as "the best thing you are going to get." Once non-Pueblo representatives were allowed to participate in the negotiations, this position was abandoned and a voluntary capping of wells was promulgated. A September 2009 public opinion survey revealed that poll respondents who had "heard a lot about the settlement" were more likely than others to strongly oppose the water system and more than half would either "definitely not" or "probably not" connect to the water distribution system.
According to the position paper, "PBWA's position is that the proposed agreement should not be funded as it is not in the best interests of the Country, State, City or County citizens."
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