Originally created 01/25/00

Report on SRS suit gets mixed reaction



A 60 Minutes report Sunday about a racial-discrimination lawsuit at Savannah River Site inspired reactions as opposite as the views held by the suit's litigants.

Willar Hightower, a plaintiff in the suit against four SRS contractors who was interviewed for the report, said 60 Minutes "did a good and thorough job of presenting the picture."

But executives at Westinghouse Savannah River Co., the federal nuclear-weapons site's main contractor and a defendant in the suit, called the report by veteran correspondent Mike Wallace "selective" in the information it presented.

"I think their approach to the story was rather selective, but we are convinced of the merits of our case in court," said Westinghouse spokesman Will Callicott. "We have begun filing motions with the court that address our position, and we think our case is very compelling.

"That may not have come across in television, but it will in court."

The suit, filed in 1997, states that Westinghouse and fellow contractors Bechtel Savannah River Inc., Babcock & Wilcox Savannah River Co. and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. Savannah River Corp. discriminated against black employees in awarding pay raises and promotions.

The suit also states that the firms assigned more often to black employees jobs that could expose workers to radiation hazards.

Ten employees filed the suit; about 80 added their names in March. The suit seeks class-action status that would allow the plaintiffs to represent the interests of all black employees of the companies.

Mr. Hightower, who also is an Aiken County councilman, said he thinks the report made the community more aware of the lawsuit's magnitude.

"Some people are still in disbelief that there is any substance at all to the allegations," he said. "I can assure you that there is some substance to the allegations."

But Westinghouse president Joe Buggy, in an e-mail sent Monday to his company's employees, stated that the report omitted much of the information presented in his own 60 Minutes interview.

Among those points were the company's procedures for responding to reports of unfair treatment, and its job and radiation-safety procedures, Mr. Buggy wrote.

"60 Minutes has now come and gone," he wrote. "I hope that this publicity will not be a distraction to all of you, and that you can focus your attention on the safe performance of the job at hand."

ReachBrandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.