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 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.
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.