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How Could San Onofre’s Federal Enclave Status Threaten Public Safety?

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In California, whistleblowers are provided a number of protections under state labor laws, explains a personal injury lawyer. However, many of these protections are not available to workers at the San Onofre nuclear plant because it sits on land that is considered a “federal enclave.”

Southern California Edison operates the plant, but it is located on a plot of land that was leased from the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. The land has been federal property since 1942, thus its status as a federal enclave. Within the federal enclave, only government employee protection laws are recognized. In many cases, especially those concerning whistleblower laws, workers have far less protection than those employed elsewhere in California outside of federal enclaves.

The lack of state whistleblower protection has created numerous situations where individuals haven’t been sufficiently protected for reporting safety violations, possibly discouraging them from coming forward and reporting-a major problem since The Nation indicates that San Onofre has the worst safety record of all of the 104 reactors in the country.


The Federal Enclave Rules

For the state or federal government to pass laws, it must have jurisdiction-or legal authority-over an area. The United States Constitution has established a separation of powers that delineates the jurisdiction of the federal and state governments.

The Constitution established certain areas as “federal enclaves” in Article I section 8, Clause 17. The relevant clause stipulates that the United States has “exclusive legislation” and “like authority” over “all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards and other needful Buildings.” When a state allowed the federal government to purchase land for something, such as for the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, the federal government automatically acquired exclusive jurisdiction.

This clause has the effect of creating certain areas within states where only federal laws apply. Unfortunately, Congress did not create civil laws to govern the relationships between individuals on federal enclaves. This meant that although crimes could be prosecuted under the Federal Crimes Act of 1790 and Assimilative Crimes Act, there was, and is, essentially no mechanism for civil justice within these federal enclaves.

The Supreme Court attempted to solve this problem with the “international law rule,” which stipulated that all state civil laws in effect at the time when the federal government acquired the property would apply within the federal enclave. In the case of the San Onofre power plant, however, the land was acquired in 1942, prior to the extensive protections provided under California whistleblower and employee protection legislation that is in effect today.

San Onofre Cases

The Los Angeles Times indicates that employees at San Onofre are not able to file lawsuits in state court when and if their labor law rights are violated because of the federal enclave rules. Damages provided under California law are more extensive than those available under federal law. This has created numerous problems throughout the time the power plant has been in existence.

In 1986, for example, a contractor complained to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the plant was violating emergency evacuation requirements. He was allegedly laid off as a result of this complaint and filed suit. His case was thrown out by a federal judge, in part because the plant sat within a federal enclave.

In 2006, an employee sued for wrongful termination. He alleged that the power plant had trumped-up charges of fraud in order to fire him because he reported safety concerns. His case bounced between federal and state court twice before being thrown out because there were no wrongful termination protections in federal enclaves.

Finally, in July 2012, Paul Diaz, a former plant manager, was also fearful that he would be unable to pursue his case. Diaz alleged that he was fired in retaliation for reporting concerns about illegal discrimination. While Diaz’ case is still pending, he and his attorney have expressed surprise that Diaz is not protected by California state laws and that he cannot sue in state court.

A spokesperson for Southern California Edison indicated that workers are encouraged to come forward to report safety concerns, but the lack of protections available under California labor law remain a serious problem-one that could prevent some workers from coming forward to report information about safety violations if they fear retaliation that would prevent them from earning a living.

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