Officials: Stay the course on Hanford vapors until study done

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJune 23, 2014 

Work underway at the Hanford tank farms.


Washington Gov. Jay Inslee supports the Hanford tank farm approach of allowing workers to opt for increased levels of personal protection such as different respirators to guard against chemical vapors until a new independent assessment is completed.

Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent a letter on Hanford vapor issues Friday to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. That was followed by an announcement Monday of the team picked by Savannah River National Laboratory to perform the assessment.

"The repeated complaints from workers about exposure to tank vapors that may be causing harm requires a comprehensive response," the letter said.

This spring about 37 Hanford workers have received medical evaluations after either reporting a suspicious odor or in some cases developing symptoms consistent with exposure to chemical vapors. All were cleared to return to work, but workers are concerned about developing serious health issues long-term from chemical exposure.

Workers sometimes report a smell of ammonia, which is one of the chemicals in the head space of underground tanks.

Washington River Protection Solutions, the Department of Energy contractor at the tank farms, requires a minimum of half-face respirators when there is an increased risk for tank vapors.

Those include when waste is being disturbed, such as when waste is pumped from a tank or transferred between tanks, or when workers will be in an area where suspicious odors have been reported in the past.

Workers can instead opt for a full-face respirator or a supplied-air respirator, according to the contractor.

There was one instance about a year ago when a request for a supplied-air respirator was denied and that worker was reassigned to other tank farm work, said contractor spokesman John Britton. Washington River Protection Solutions concluded that it would be unsafe for the electrician to have a steel tank on his back while working in a confined area with high-voltage electricity.

The governor and attorney general said that DOE staff and contractors should ensure easy access to equipment when it's requested.

Washington River Protection Solutions is working to make the process of switching to a respirator or higher-level respirator easier and faster, Britton said.

The process requires a worker to fill out paperwork and have the status of the worker's respirator training and fit testing for a respirator mask verified. Training and medical evaluation are standard requirements industry-wide for respirator use, not just at Hanford, according to Washington River Protection Solutions.

Washington River Protection Solutions announced in April that the national lab in South Carolina would lead a review of chemical vapors and worker protection at Hanford, with a goal of providing a broader analysis and recommendations than technical reviews in 2008 and 2010.

The panel members for the study will be led by Bill Wilmarth, a senior scientist at Savannah River National Lab. The nine-person panel also includes Rebecca Holland, a Hanford health physics technologist, to represent workers through the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council.

"Our goal is to provide a set of independent recommendations that will help to reduce the likelihood of chemical exposures and will improve overall workplace safety," Wilmarth said.

"The addition of the assessment team as an independent body will bring needed credibility to the results and recommendations," the governor's letter said.

The letter said that DOE should have recommendations by fall and that the Washington state secretary of health will review the scope of the assessment as well as the results and recommendation.

The Savannah River National Laboratory said a draft report should be available by the end of the summer and a final report in December.

"Once recommendations are received, we urge that solutions proposed and implemented by DOE be formalized so that they will stand the test of time," the governor's letter said.

Workers have complained of tank vapors for more than two decades, with improvements to better protect their health made periodically.

"Recent complaints clearly indicate that the problem has not been fixed," the governor's letter said. "We understand the complex nature of trying to track down these vapor exposures and assess their health risks, but it is essential that you bring all tools to bear in protecting the safety of our state's workers."

Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, said in a message to workers that DOE supports the decision to have the Savannah River lab conduct the review and include Holland to ensure worker insight and feedback is included.

"It is in everyone's best interest to drive vapor exposures down to the lowest possible levels," Smith said.

DOE supports efforts by its contractor and the national lab to find long-lasting solutions to chemical vapors as operations in the tank farms increase, he said.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533;; Twitter: @HanfordNews

Members of assessment team named

The team picked by Savannah River National Laboratory to review the chemical vapors program at Hanford includes members from academia, industry and government agencies, as well as a worker representative.

Members were picked to bring a range of knowledge and expertise, including the fields of air emission releases from storage tanks, worker safety, risk assessments and biological monitoring and modeling.

They include:

Bill Wilmarth, the team chairman, is a senior advisory scientist at Savannah River lab with more than 15 years experience in high-level radioactive waste storage and processing.

Andrew Maier, the vice chairman, is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine. He is diplomat of the American Board of Toxicology.

Rebecca Holland, a health physics technologist at Hanford with 28 years of experience, will represent workers. She is a member of the Hanford Advisory Board and served as recording secretary for the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council for nine years.

Charles Timchalk is a staff member of the Center for Biological Monitoring and Modeling at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Toxicology.

Tom Armstrong is principal investigator for TWA8HR Occupational Hygiene Consulting, adjunct professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health and a member on two National Academy of Science committees evaluating risk assessment of national infectious disease research labs.

Robert Ferry, co-founder of The TGB Partnership, is in expert in air emission releases from storage tanks and has published more than 80 papers and presentations on the topic.

John Henshaw, the senior vice president of Cardno ChemRisk, is the former administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and former president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

Michael Jayjock of Jayjock Associates is a former member and consultant to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board and a fellow of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

Jim Rock, vice president of TUPE Inc., is a senior lecturer in the Nuclear Engineering Department at Texas A&M. He is the former president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

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