Lexington, KY — In a courtroom tomorrow, a parade of current and former specialists from an Army chemical weapons plant will detail safety breakdowns, inadequate training and a practice of silencing those who pointed out problems, according to pre-hearing filings by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The hearing before a federal administrative law judge centers on a prominent whistleblower at the Blue Grass Army Depot, located 30 miles south of Lexington, where more than 500 tons of chemical warfare agents, including highly lethal nerve gas, are stored.
The hearing will begin at 10 am tomorrow, Nov. 27, 2007, and continue through Nov. 28 and 29 beginning each of those days at 9 am. It will take place at the University of Kentucky, College of Law Courtroom, First Floor, 209 Law Building, located at 620 S. Limestone in Lexington.
The case concerns the refusal by Blue Grass to restore the position of, and clearances for, Donald Van Winkle, a chemical weapons monitoring operator. Van Winkle had revealed that —
- Air monitors inside the inside storage units called igloos were configured so as to be ineffective;
- Employees at the depot were not being properly tested for low level exposures to nerve agent; and
- The chemical weapon facility lacked critical preparedness procedures in case of an emergency, provided inadequate maintenance of monitoring equipment and suffered from training gaps among key personnel.
Many of Van Winkle’s disclosures were confirmed in a late October 2007 site inspection by the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection which took the unusual step of issuing notices of violation to the Blue Grass Depot. In addition, Van Winkle’s reports are at the heart of an ongoing federal grand jury investigation into base management. Earlier this month, the state’s two U.S. senators, Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning, along with Rep. Ben Chandler, wrote a letter of concern about conditions at the depot.
“The reason we have laws protecting whistleblowers is so that potential perils at chemical weapon and other vital facilities are reported and dealt with – not swept under the rug,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is providing Van Winkle with legal representation. “Nothing will change at Blue Grass until they stop treating people like Donald Van Winkle as the enemy.”
The hearing tomorrow is before an administrative law judge of the U.S. Department of Labor. The key issue is whether Blue Grass removed Van Winkle from his job on the chemical stockpile in retaliation for his reports of safety and security lapses. A number of Van Winkle’s former colleagues and supervisors will testify under oath and subject to cross examination.