Chemical Weapons Whistleblower Wins New Hearing
Nerve Agent Monitoring Lapses Triggered Separation from Blue Grass Depot
Washington, DC — The person who reported that the air quality monitoring system to detect leaks from the chemical weapons stockpile at Blue Grass Army Depot did not work has a new chance to get his job back, according to a legal filing made today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Blue Grass, located outside of Richmond, 30 miles south of Lexington, Kentucky, holds more than 500 tons of highly lethal nerve and mustard agents inside rockets housed inside bunkers called igloos.
Back in 2005, Donald Van Winkle, a chemical weapons monitoring operator, revealed that —
- Air monitors inside the igloos were configured so as to be inoperative;
- 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, as well as adequate equipment maintenance and training.
Van Winkle’s reports were verified by the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection, which issued notices of violation against Blue Grass and the Army Inspector General. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also helped convene a grand jury on problems at the Depot.
Shortly after his reports went public, Van Winkle was stripped of his clearance to work in the stockpile, removed from his air monitoring duties and harassed until he resigned. He filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), which held a hearing in 2007. In 2008, a DOL administrative law judge ruled that the actions against Van Winkle were not reviewable because of security considerations. In 2011, the DOL Administrative Review Board reversed the judge’s ruling and ordered a full reconsideration of the matter.
Ironically, the rationale used by Depot officials for its actions was their perception that Van Winkle was a “danger to the stockpile” even though it was Van Winkle who disclosed that the monitors could not tell if the integrity of the stockpile had been breached.
As the ensuing investigations validated his concerns, the problems identified by Van Winkle have been largely corrected and, after other employees came forward with similar accounts, Depot management has been replaced. Yet, despite a 2011 Pentagon Inspector General report finding that Van Winkle had been subjected to improper reprisal, he has still not been restored.
“The record is overwhelming that Donald Van Winkle took steps that protected public safety but for his trouble he had to sacrifice his career at the Depot,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed the brief today. “Donald Van Winkle’s five year odyssey for justice may finally be nearing port.”