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State Officials Block Open Testimony by DEP Nuclear Whistleblower

NJ Deputy Attorney General Hamner packs it in as DEP officials (left) wlak out of hearing on Friday in State House.

NJ Deputy Attorney General Hamner packs it in as DEP officials (right) walk out of hearing on Friday in State House. (stenographer and hearing officer on left)

DEP’s Chief Nuclear Engineer removed and “put in a broom closet” for disclosing safety risks at the oldest US nuclear power plant.

NJ State officials blocked the open testimony of nuclear whistleblower Dennis Zannoni at a Friday State House hearing.

After more than 3 years of retaliation and delay by the State, Zannoni was finally scheduled to testify under oath about his criticism of serious safety problems at the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant, and a pattern of DEP retaliation that ensued for those public disclosures.

DEP retaliation even included trumped up charges – redolent of Soviet Gulag strategy – of state vehicle abuse to support a 6 month suspension.

Zannoni had criticized the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) relicensing process. He claimed that important safety issues were ignored, poorly addressed, and/or covered up during an industry biased relicensing process.

Since he made those disclosures more than 3 years ago, some of Zannoni’s claims have been vindicated by the recent discovery of radioactive tritium leaks at the Oyster Creek plant

Oyster Creek is the nation’s oldest nulclear power plant, part of a generation of 1960’s designed facilities dubbed “Zombie Nukes” by safety advocates (see “NJ’s Oyster Creek a Poster Child for “Zombie Nuke Plants”

Shockingly, the Attorney General’s Office and Department of Environmental Protection threatened to have Zannoni’s family members and invited observers physically ejected from the State House hearing by State Police.

After the Zannoni observers questioned and declined to comply with that threat, State officials reconsidered the wisdom and likely embarrrassing repercussions of that repressive move, and did not call State Police to clear the State House hearing room.

Instead, after a legal debate about whether the State legally had the authority to close the hearing to public observers, state officials abruptly left the room in protest.

The State move ended the hearing and prevented Zannoni from providing testimony on his side of the story.

The State claimed that this hearing – which was to provide a forum for sworn whistleblower testimony on the State’s retaliation for disclosures of Oyster Creek safety risks – was a private labor contract dispute that was closed to invited public observers and the press.

This claim is absurd on its face, because the case involves DEP retaliation for criticism of NRC and public disclosures of safety risks.

In retaliation for his public disclosures,  Zannoni was removed as DEP’s Chief Nuclear Engineer and “put in a broom closet”.

Obviously, the Zannoni case is a significant public matter, not a private contract dispute. His case involves both the exercise of constitutionally protected free speech rights and retaliation for classic whistleblower law “protected activity” .

We wrote briefly about the Zannoni case in this broader post on the politicization of DEP science.

National Public Radio’s (NPR) “Living on Earth” program covered the Zannoni story in a piece on former DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson’s EPA confirmation.

The Corzine Administration’s DEP head Lisa Jackson retaliated against Zannoni (click on to read/listen to “Jackson’s Job in Jersey” by NPR reporter Jeff Young). Here’s an excerpt from the NPR transcript:

Jackson also faces criticism from some who worked for her in New Jersey. One scientist resigned because she felt Jackson had ignored science about the carcinogen chromium. Jeff Ruch directs PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which compiled a list of worker complaints about Jackson. Ruch says they’re similar to complaints he hears from federal employees at the Bush EPA.

RUCH: Retaliation against whistleblowers, marginalization of science, a penchant for secrecy. If that’s the management style she brings to EPA it will not be the change we need.

YOUNG: Ruch points to the case of whistleblower Dennis Zannoni. Zannoni was the agency’s top nuclear energy official. When he raised concerns about the safety of the Oyster Creek facility ”the oldest nuclear power plant in the country” he soon found himself off the nuclear beat.

ZANNONI: One day, January 30, 2007, I was removed without reason from my position as chief nuclear engineer and pretty much put in a broom closet in the department. And it’s been like that for two years.

Here’s how the most recent episode of the remarkable Zannoni saga went down on Friday, November 19, 2010.

We became aware of the 10 am Friday State House hearing and chose to attend to support Zannoni, bear witness, and hold state officials publicly accountable.

I entered the empty hearing room in the State House at 9:40 am. Shortly after my arrival, the hearing officer arrived (clarification: the room was “empty”, except for the stenographer).

Before the hearing started and was on the record, Deputy Attorney General Hamner entered the room and immediately protested my presence and taking photos.

DAG Hamner then asked me to leave the room.

I questioned his authority to order my removal and declined to leave.

I then introduced myself, advised DAG Hamner and the hearing officer of who I was and outlined my objectives and public interest reasons for being there. I then said that Mr. Zannoni’s lawyers needed to be involved in this discusion and that it should occur on the hearing record.

Other observers then entered, including members of Mr. Zannoni’s family and ocean county antinuclear activists. These folks had attended prior hearings without objection by the State.

Zannoni's family members, supporters, and public observers discuss whether to comply with the State's demand to leave

Zannoni's family members, supporters, and public observers discuss whether to comply with the State's demand to leave

The hearing began.

The DAG stated his objections to public observers and said the hearing was limited to direct participants in the case. The State took the position that this was a private contract dispute.

Zannoni’s lawyer objected and outlined the free speech and whistleblower issues in the case. He emphasized that this made the case inherently of significant public interest. He expressed his “shock” by the State’s arguments and attempts to suppress his clients testimony and to remove public observers.

He indicated his intent to file a motion in Superior Court to litigate the question of whether the State could close the hearing to public observers and the press.

After a round of debate, and private caucuses among the various parties, the hearing officer entered the room and strangley announced that the hearing was “adjourned”.

In other in a pattern of unusual bad faith moves in this case, DAG Hamner requested an “adjournment” in an off the record, private discussion with the hearing officer. Without even consulting Zannoni’s attorney or going on the record, the DAG’s request was granted and the hearing was adjourned.

I was told by one fellow observer that the hearing officer indicated to her that the State only had a problem with one specific observer: me.

Immediately after the hearing ended, Zannoni supporters walked to Governor Christie’s office in a protest gesture in support of Mr. Zannoni and as a demand to open the hearing and stop the DEP coverup and retaliation which has effectively destroyed Mr. Zannoni’s promising career as DEP’s 15+ year Chief Nuclear Engineer.

[Update: 11/23/10 – I just re-read this an neeed to make a few clarifications: PEER does not represent Zannoni. I was not invited to the hearing by Zannoni, a colleague forwarded an email by Zannoni inviting the public. The threat to use the State Police was made by the representative of the Office of Employee Relations. I assumed that this was a DEP Office, but it may be Department of Personnel. The “hearing officer” is a mediator. I have not been involved in this case or the prior hearings and have read only a portion of the second hearing transcript. My understanding is that the disciplinary charges agaisnt Zannoni were initiaited after his whistleblowing episode, and therefore asume that are pretextual, but have not reviewed any documents or supporting evidence. The only knowledge I have is from media reports, I have not spoken with Zannoni and met him for the first time at the hearing.]

Zannoni's family, supporters, and Oyster Creek opponents ask for Christie to stop the retaliation and coverup.

Zannoni's family, supporters, and Oyster Creek opponents ask for Christie to stop the retaliation and coverup.

We will keep you posted as events develop.

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  1. Kathleen Leatherman
    November 22nd, 2010 at 20:39 | #1

    The only reason tht the government would not want anyone to hear the truth is because they have something to hide. What are they afraid of, the truth?
    Their actions sound like a little child who was cornered and responds immaturely, “everyone leave me alone, go away.” I do not understand why more citizens living near Oyster Creek are not more involved? Oyster Creek is not going to magically become non-toxic.

    Don’t let the government get away with this, get involved! Support the one person that took the step we all wished that we would have taken to protect all of us, Mr. Zannoni.

  2. Joseph Zannoni
    February 21st, 2011 at 15:07 | #2

    What a country. You do your job and what is right for the people of the state and you find yourself suspended and having to hire a lawyer, spend thousands to clear your name and fight for more than 3 years to try to right the wrong. No future potential for promotion, to do the job you are most qualified to perform, on the black list of the power generators, NRC and state.

    They cut the deal, Excelon gets 10 more years without having to install cooling towers, walks away with hundreds of millions while tritium is leaking into the aquifer.

    What a country…….

  1. December 9th, 2010 at 22:28 | #1
  2. March 14th, 2011 at 20:18 | #2
  3. July 7th, 2011 at 08:43 | #3
  4. August 25th, 2011 at 16:57 | #4
  5. July 6th, 2012 at 19:31 | #5
  6. October 18th, 2012 at 17:52 | #6
  7. November 21st, 2012 at 10:09 | #7
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