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State sues the feds, citing “toxic roulette” for Hanford workers

Workers prepare to remove the core that was cut from tank C-107. Credit: Department of Energy

Diana Gegg says her right side shakes at times, she gets fierce headaches, and she stutters when she’s nervous. David Krug says part of his neck turned permanently red and he later got thyroid cancer. Steve Lewis says his voice changed, becoming far more gravely.

Gegg, Krug and Lewis all worked at or around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s underground, radioactive waste tanks. They all inhaled vapors wafting from those tanks. They all suffered severe and permanent ailments. And they all are frustrated with what they claim is Hanford’s unwillingness to seriously tackle that problem.

Yesterday, the state of Washington and a watchdog group filed two federal lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), accusing the agency of ignoring the safety risks posed to workers who were exposed to fumes from Hanford’s radioactive wastes over the course of more than 20 years.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson pointed to 19 Hanford safety reports on those toxic vapors that have been published since 1992, with little actual follow-up work, as well as 50 reports of workers being exposed to them between the beginning of 2014 and April 2015. “It’s unacceptable,” he said at a Wednesday press conference in Seattle.

Gegg says she lost her ability to operate heavy equipment following her exposure in 2007. She has paid $50,000 of her own money to unsuccessfully try to find answers to her symptoms. Krug, who inhaled fumes in a control room among the tanks, says he never could find how the chemical composition of the vapors he inhaled 13 years ago. Lewis says the DOE did minimal follow-up in checking on his health. “We’re lost in the process over there,” said the former electrician.

“It’s Russian roulette for these folks. It’s a toxic roulette,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Seattle-based Hanford Challenge, which filed a parallel lawsuit at the same time as the stat attorney general’s office.

The state’s lawsuit was prompted by the feds providing vague answers and no timelines on fixing the tank vapors problem, according to Ferguson: “These vapors are a witches’ brews of toxic substances.”

The Department of Energy and the Department of Justice, which will defend DOE in court, declined to comment on the lawsuits Wednesday, citing rules against publicly discussing litigation.

Following the suit’s announcement, the DOE agency handling Hanford’s tank wastes issued a brief written statement. It said the site’s lead contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), “has increased the use of work controls and personal protective equipment, including the use of self-contained breathing apparatus in areas of potential vapor exposure. We are working closely with WRPS as they implement the first phase of activities identified in response to a technical assessment team chartered to address potential vapor exposures.”

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, near Richland, Wash., is arguably the most radiologically and chemically contaminated chunk of land in the Western Hemisphere. Hanford’s biggest problem is the 77 huge underground tanks in the center of the site, which hold 56 million gallons of highly radioactive sludge and fluids left over from atomic bomb making operations in the 1940s through the 1980s.

Roughly 1,500 radioactive and non-radioactive substances are represented in the site’s storage tanks. At least 68 tanks are suspected of leaking at least 1 million gallons of those wastes into the ground near the Columbia River.

The Department of Energy and its contractors are pumping the wastes from 149 old single-shell tanks into 28 new, supposedly safer, double-shell tanks. These 177 tanks are arranged in 18 clusters, which Hanford slang dubs “the tank farms.” One recently sprung a leak in its inner shell.

Hanford’s wastes are diluted with water and then pumped above ground into pipes, and into the double-shell tanks. The vapors escape from the tanks into the air via vents and the pumping apparatus.

The number of workers exposed to tank vapors since the late 1980s is difficult to pin down, due to erratic use of medical checkups and inconsistent records in the past few decades, but the number is estimated to be in the hundreds.

At least 72 exposed Hanford tank workers were medically checked for exposure to toxic vapors since March 2014, according to Hanford Challenge, which has been involved in one form or another with Hanford safety issues for at least three decades. That number includes 13 workers exposed to tank vapors in June, according to the attorney general’s office.

At least one Hanford tank worker, Gary Saul, died in the past decade from exposure to the vapors, Carpenter said. He suffered from toxic encephalopathy, a neurological disease that causes memory loss, personality changes, involuntary body movements, seizures, and fatigue.

The latest exposure took place on August 14, to an employee in a cluster of double-shell tanks. He was not wearing a respirator because Hanford’s safety rules did not require him to, according to the attorney general’s office.

Six Hanford employees and former employees attended Wednesday’s press conference. They described a safety culture in which employees in different teams could be following significantly different safety procedures, even at the same location among the tanks. Some workers would wear air tanks or respirators, while nearby workers wore neither, they said.

Meanwhile, Pete Nicacio, business manager for Hanford’s United Association of Plumbers & Steamfitters Local No. 598, said contractors have retaliated against the union for insisting on stricter safety measures against the toxic vapors.

Steamfitters are specialized blue-collar workers who construct and maintain the complicated piping system that moves the waste around central Hanford. Their local union routinely requests air packs and respirators for its members in the tank clusters.

Last year, Nicacio said the local began noticing that work normally done by steamfitters has been occasionally rerouted to other Hanford unions. He said his union recently obtained a spring 2015 request for proposals from a tank farms subcontractor, in which it told prospective bidders that bids would be cheaper and faster if they avoided hiring members of the steamfitters local, because the extra safety gear slows down work.

“(The Department of Energy) is more concerned with schedules and costs than with worker safety,” Nicacio said.

Some of the Hanford workers present for the press conference described a disinterest from Hanford contractors in following up on their cases.

Klug, 53, of Pasco has been a tank farms worker since 1992. He says a single-shell tank was being pumped out when a chemical vapor invaded the control room where he was working. Klug’s lungs hurt badly — “it felt like someone kicked me in the gut.” He and his companions had metal tastes in their mouths. Later, Klug tried to find out what type of chemicals he could have been exposed to. Hanford never told him.

In 2002, Lewis, 63, of Kennewick was digging a ditch next to a tank farm when tank fumes wafted over to him. He and other workers were told to leave the spot. His face turned red. He has suffered from congestion ever since. “Hanford never followed up (medically),” he said.

Ferguson and Carpenter said their lawsuits are seeking to force the Department of Energy and its contractors to improve safeguards against escaped vapors, and to require top-level safety procedures for workers the tank farms. Their agencies also seek real-time monitoring of the air around the tanks, which currently does not exist. And they want to force the feds and contractors to be accountable for implementing those measures.

Hanford is lagging on its legal schedule to pump out many of the single-shell tanks. The state filed a lawsuit on this issue in 2008. It and the feds reached a compromise in a 2010 federal court consent order. The DOE has fallen behind the schedule set by the consent order. The state has proposed some new tank pumping deadlines, while the energy department wants to remove some deadlines overall.

A federal judge is expected to resolve that matter this year.

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