The Department of Energy and its regulators have agreed to restrict the use of heavy equipment to demolish buildings that still have asbestos out of concern for worker health.
The agreement, signed Monday, comes after the Environmental Protection Agency inspector general issued an early-warning report in December, saying that removal of asbestos in alternative ways at Hanford and elsewhere potentially threatened health and safety.
Hanford contractors have conducted no demolition of buildings with asbestos in alternative ways since then, in part because none had been scheduled, said DOE spokesman Geoff Tyree.
Hanford workers had been removing by hand all asbestos possible before demolishing buildings using heavy equipment, typically an excavator with shears.
Never miss a local story.
That included panels of transite, or cement asbestos board, siding that were bolted onto buildings. The mid-century siding is common in Hanford buildings.
But when workers needed to be lifted seven stories high to remove 138-pound transite siding panels at Hanford's 384 Power House in 2008, workers instead used mechanical demolition, prying off panels as gently as possible and lowering them to the ground with an excavator equipped with a bucket and "thumb."
The practice spread to central Hanford buildings, even if work did not need to be done at high elevations, until mechanical demolition of about 26 buildings with asbestos had been completed by the end of 2011.
The transite siding is considered nonfriable because it doesn't easily crumble into a powder that can be breathed in. Breathing in fine fibers of asbestos can cause cancer and other lung diseases, sometimes decades after exposure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
However, Hanford regulators EPA and the Washington State Department of Ecology now are concerned that mechanically removing siding could cause it to "become crumbled, pulverized or reduced to powder."
Last month, in response to worker concerns raised after the EPA inspector general's early warning, top Hanford and union officials sent a message to all Hanford employees saying tighter controls would be placed on areas that contained asbestos.
That includes siding or roofing material that could break or blow off buildings that have not been demolished and areas where asbestos-containing materials may remain on the ground after buildings have been demolished.
During the mechanical demolition of buildings with asbestos materials, monitoring was done and no readings indicated workers were exposed above limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, according to DOE. Additional sampling is being done at demolition sites.
Restrictions are being placed on mechanical demolition as a precaution, said Dennis Faulk, EPA Hanford program manager.
But if additional mechanical demolition is approved, there will need to be a compelling reason for it, he said.
"DOE and EPA will protect the work force, protect the environment and comply with laws," he said.
EPA in Washington, D.C., has issued a plan of corrections that includes communicating National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants and Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements for demolition of asbestos-containing structures.
That includes notifying field offices that appropriate waivers must be issued for unapproved methods of asbestos removal and retracting approval for any work plans with unapproved methods of asbestos demolition.
EPA also recommends that any worker who might have been exposed to asbestos because of alternative demolition methods be notified. DOE is developing plans to contact former workers, most likely by letter.
It also has posted information at www.hanford.gov. Look for it in the rotating topics near the upper left corner.
"We'll be working with EPA and providing any information they request as they work through their corrective actions," Tyreesaid. "Our goal is to ensure our workers continue to be safe as they do environmental cleanup."
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org