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Millstone security employees criticize COVID-19 safety efforts

Waterford — In the midst of refueling one of its two active nuclear reactors, a process that has brought in 750 temporary workers, 10 employees at Millstone Power Station have tested positive for COVID-19.

The arrival of the new workers has caused concern among some current employees such as Millstone security officer Jim Foley, who is also the vice president of the United Government Security Officers of America’s local chapter. 

Foley said security officers have had to "fight" for personal protective equipment as well as partitions at access points to separate staff from security.

"Speaking specifically for the guard force, there's a lot of frustration, there's a lot of concern, and I would say there's anger," Foley said. "We are essential employees; our plant produces electricity. The rank and file just don't feel like the company respects or appreciates the commitment and dedication that they're showing to this."

Victoria Robinson, the wife of another security officer, has also criticized Millstone's management of COVID-19.

“These security officers are interacting with every person that comes into that plant,” Robinson said. “Now they're preparing for the outage. That means hundreds of outside people in addition to regular plant staff.”

Other employees have reached out to The Day to discuss Millstone’s operations during the pandemic, but have not wanted to speak publicly because they are worried about their job security.

“[Millstone is] very tight-lipped. Part of the reason they're able to be is that there is a fear amongst the workforce that you have to be careful of what you say,” Foley said.

Millstone Spokesman Kenneth Holt said Millstone has not heard any criticism internally.

"We've actually gotten a lot of compliments from employees on the steps we've taken. We've stepped up communications with employees to let them know what's going on," he said.

"I am very proud of Dominion Energy's response to this virus, not only at Millstone but across the entire corporation," Holt added.

Robinson wondered if Millstone is saving its COVID-19 test kits, of which they have 500, according to Holt, for certain personnel rather than security officers. The first tests were given the week of April 20.

Holt did not specify who was tested, but he said “we identified the people at Millstone who were most critical to the safe operation of the plant.”

Robinson said she was recently exposed to someone who tested positive for coronavirus. Her husband called his supervisor and he was told to take six days off, but after that he should come to work. He told his supervisor he didn’t feel comfortable going to work, and he should self-quarantine for two weeks, which he has been doing. 

Holt said the protocol for someone who tests positive is they self-quarantine for two weeks. Millstone determines who came into contact with the person and they are either quarantined as well or tested immediately. He said that at the beginning of the pandemic, staff who traveled internationally or in the New York City area were asked to quarantine for 14 days.

Cleaning and staffing

Foley said there was no scheduled cleaning activity on weekends from April 3 through April 19 despite Millstone’s round-the-clock operation. Foley also said some materials used by cleaning personnel to sanitize larger areas, such as access points, were not CDC/EPA-approved as effective against the virus.

Foley filed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaint on behalf of the union citing two violations: the lack of cleaning and sanitizing and using ineffective cleaning materials.

Holt said the number of employees is low on weekends, so the station typically wouldn’t have a cleaning staff. With the outage, though, and more people being on-site, there has been a recent increase in cleaning staff on weekends. Holt said Millstone tries to focus cleaning efforts on days that many people are at work, and that cleaning personnel work on doorknobs, stair rails and populated areas the most.

As for the cleaning products issue, Holt referenced one incident early on during the pandemic when personnel “had gone to Home Depot and gotten a bottle of disinfectant that wasn’t on the list, but by the next day, that had been replaced by disinfectant on the list.”

Foley said Millstone began working with the union in developing its pandemic plan in March. One aspect of that plan was having security officers and supervisors quarantining, essentially on standby in case they were needed to support shift operations. Within the last two weeks, Foley said, Millstone has brought back half the employees who were at home. He said he doesn’t know what prompted the move, considering the pandemic is ongoing.

Holt said he thought the company may discontinue the practice. 

Out-of-state workers and labor issues

Another issue raised by Robinson, Foley and other employees is the influx of workers coming from out of state to work on the refueling.

“There are plates for vehicles that came from New York, from all over the country,” Robinson said. “These people are staying in rental houses and hotels and eating out in the area.”

So how does Millstone account for activities of these contractors?

“We really can’t take account for what they’re doing outside of Millstone,” Holt said of the outage workers. “We’re focused on them when they’re at work.” He said a lot of the new on-site personnel live in the area.

While Millstone would normally bring in 1,000 outside people to work on the outage, that number has been reduced to 750, Holt said.

On April 23, Dominion Energy said the refueling outage would last about a month and told residents there would be increased activity at the station.

First Selectman Rob Brule said Millstone has been proactive in its response to COVID-19.   

“They keep us informed of the actions they’re taking at Millstone to protect their workers and the public,” he said.

Millstone’s positive cases are not added to Waterford’s case count unless the employee lives in Waterford. 

Meanwhile, Foley said his union has been negotiating with G4S, the security services company its members work for, since early April for hazard pay. 

“While we were discussing hazard pay, at one point, the company made an offer,” Foley said. “We countered that offer, and then we were notified a couple days later that the company’s official stand was that they weren’t obligated to negotiate and weren’t interested in paying us hazard pay.”

G4S Spokesperson Sabrina Rios wrote in an email that there is a collective bargaining agreement in place between G4S and the union representing Millstone’s security officers.

“G4S did not initiate a discussion with the Local Union over the issue of hazard pay, and there have been no negotiations over that issue,” Rios wrote.

Foley called that characterization a “categorical lie.”

Millstone PPE and protective measures

Brule shared a press release from Dominion/Millstone that outlined the steps it was taking to lower risk, including social distancing and personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and face shields.

Other precautions Holt highlighted include increased availability of hand sanitizer, plexiglass barriers erected in areas where people are processed before entering the plant and taking the temperature of people daily. If someone has a temperature of 99.6 degrees or higher, Holt said, they're told to stay home until their fever has subsided for more than three days.

In general, Foley said, Millstone/Dominion cites a “panel of experts” in its COVID-19 decision-making. Foley and his colleagues don’t know who these experts are nor what guidelines they’re working from.

Holt said the experts are medical professionals, but he declined to name them.

“As a corporation, we consult with medical professionals, and we’re making decisions based on their input, based on CDC guidelines, and ultimately the decision on what we do rests with our corporate management team,” Holt said.

While Foley further criticized Millstone/Dominion for being vague with the public, he tempered his condemnations with a recognition of the difficult situation all parties are in.

“I don't want to paint an unfair picture. The company does screen people coming in for the refueling; they're asking them about their recent travel plans, where they've come from, etcetera,” Foley said.

But Robinson said social distancing is “nearly impossible” because people who need to enter Millstone stand in line to get into work daily. She believes plant operators are being treated with more care than security officers even though the guards are exposed to more people. She said Millstone initially waited too long to require face masks at work, and at first they weren’t supplying security officers with enough PPE.

“And these are essential workers,” Robinson said. “I mean, if you don’t have security guards at your nuclear power plant, you’re going to have a bad situation.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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