Hanford Challenge cautions workers about participating in vapor study

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldApril 29, 2014 

Work underway at the Hanford tank farms.

HERALD FILE

Hanford Challenge is cautioning workers about cooperating with an investigation of Hanford's chemical tank vapors to be done by the Savannah River National Laboratory.

The Department of Energy has a history of retaliation against workers who raise concerns or become ill, Hanford Challenge said Tuesday.

"DOE has not acted to protect, or even protest, the retaliation against workers who have spoken out about safety," said Tom Carpenter, Hanford Challenge executive director.

Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, said he was disappointed that a worker advocate would discourage workers from cooperating in an investigation intended to protect their health and safety.

The study will put the full resources of the national laboratory system behind the investigation to not just study the chemical vapor issue, "but put it to bed once and for all," he said. "We are going to solve this issue."

Hanford contractor Washington River Protection Solutions recently asked the national laboratory in South Carolina to do the third independent study of tank vapors in recent years.

When the study was announced last week, 26 workers had received medical attention this spring after possible exposure to chemical vapors from waste held in Hanford's underground tanks. That increased to 28 workers Monday as work began to empty another underground tank in the C Tank Farm. Work that disturbs the waste can cause vapors to be released.

However, the problem of worker exposure to vapors extends back at least two decades, with some workers experiencing serious and chronic illnesses attributed to the chemical exposure. Some workers exposed to vapors in earlier incidents this year in September and December have not returned to work, Carpenter said.

Continuing symptoms of some of those exposed late in 2013 and this spring include persistent coughing, headaches, shortness of breath and disorientation, he said. Of particular concern is the worry that workers will develop cancer in the future because of the chemical exposure, he said.

The previous two independent studies of tank vapors were finished in 2008 and 2010 and were done with Hanford tank farm contractors and Hanford Challenge working together through the independent Hanford Concerns Council. That produced independent and credible industrial hygiene reviews and responses, according to Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based Hanford watchdog and worker advocacy group.

The Hanford Concerns Council managed the studies and set protocols and processes that inspired worker confidence, Carpenter said. Workers could request an off-site interview to make sure managers did not know they were talking to investigators, he said.

Worker privacy will be protected in the new study, Smith said. They may participate anonymously if they choose, he said.

Hanford Challenge also criticized the independence of the study, given that Hanford and the Savannah River lab are under Department of Energy control. Carpenter also pointed out that Dave Olson, president of Washington River Protection Solutions, was assigned to Hanford last year after serving as president of Savannah River Remediation and had held management positions there since 1981.

The laboratory and cleanup work at Savannah River are under separate contractors.

"Hanford workers and federal taxpayers deserve a timely, credible review. And this isn't it," Carpenter said.

Some changes have been made in recent years to improve safety at the tank farms, he said.

Some stacks that emit vapors from the tanks are taller and industrial hygiene instrumentation has been increased. But at the same time, management turnover in recent years has caused some of the recent history to be forgotten, Carpenter said.

"There really needs to be some serious effort to improve the safety culture," he said.

Because so many chemicals are potentially in vapors and in such small amounts, preventing exposure is the only way to protect workers, Carpenter said. He favors stacks that would vent waste far into the desert and away from workers, having workers use supplied air when work is being done that increases the risk of vapors and using charcoal scrubbers to capture chemicals.

All options will be on the table as DOE looks for ways to better protect workers, Smith said. It might not be possible to fully eliminate vapors, but his goal is drive vapor exposure to as close to extinction as possible, he said.

"We really want to be a healthy environment for all workers," he said.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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