After listening to almost two and a half hours of arguments related to Hanford worker protection Wednesday, U.S. Judge Thomas Rice said he will issue a detailed ruling as promptly as possible.
The case, brought by the state of Washington and other plaintiffs against the Department of Energy and its tank farm contractor, is being heard in federal court in Spokane.
Rice had many questions for plaintiff and defense attorneys throughout the hearing, but said nothing to indicate how he might rule.
DOE is in an endless cycle of increasing protections after workers are exposed to chemical vapors, only to discontinue them, leading to more vapor exposures, said Meredith Crafton, an attorney for union Local 598 and Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based advocacy group.
Never miss a local story.
Hanford puts money and deadlines above worker safety, she said.
“Energy is never going to fix a problem it denies,” she said.
Local 598 and Hanford Challenge are asking the judge for a preliminary injunction that would require protective measures until the case is decided. Trial is set for September 2017.
Department of Justice attorney Mark Nitczynski, representing DOE, argued the plaintiffs have shown “no evidence of serious health effects, cancer or otherwise, from tank farm vapors.”
Former Hanford workers live longer than the general population and have fewer cancer deaths, he said.
Attorneys for DOE said the plaintiffs based their preliminary injunction request on incidents in May and June, in which workers at Hanford reported suspicious odors or symptoms consistent with vapors.
The individual monitors worn by workers near their faces showed they had not been exposed to chemicals at levels above occupational exposure limits, the DOE attorneys said.
The state has only recently filed information on one case in May, apparently in a sealed document filed Oct. 5.
A Hanford instrument specialist said that an alarm sounded May 2 from a monitor held by an industrial hygiene technician. He was immediately hit with an overpowering odor.
He started coughing, his nose bled, he grew dizzy, his head throbbed and he started vomiting, he said.
Ammonia was present at levels that would have caused immediate damage to respiratory tissues, said Kelly Wood of the Washington State Office of the Attorney General.
A toxicologist determined that repeated exposure to chemical vapors could lead to a long-term cancer risk, Wood said.
DOE officials said the court filing was so recent that attorneys were not yet prepared to discuss specifics of the individual worker’s case, but did talk about the incident.
The instrument specialist’s own monitor did not record any chemical vapors, according to court documents.
Attorneys for Local 598 and Hanford Challenge blamed personal monitors that are ineffective. Nitczynski said the vapors can dissipate within a few feet and the wind was not blowing in the instrument specialist’s direction.
The May 2 incident was an unusual event that did not involve vapors venting from a Hanford tank into the atmosphere, Nitczynski said. Chemical vapors may be released from the head space of a tank when waste in the tank is disturbed.
In this case, maintenance was being done on a piece of equipment that had been contaminated with tank waste, he said.
Some water used to flush the equipment had remained inside plastic the equipment was wrapped in. It vaporized and then escaped into the atmosphere over a period of one to two seconds, Nitczynski said.
“The incident is not ongoing. It is akin to a spill,” he said.
DOE’s contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, is looking at ways to prevent similar incidents during maintenance, he said. Similar work is on hold until a new plan is in place.
Judge Rice asked why the worker wasn’t voluntarily wearing a supplied air respirator on May 2 to protect against chemical vapors.
Wood and Crafton explained that workers may be ridiculed by management for asking for supplied air respirators or face other repercussions.
“Hanford has a culture of fear and retaliation,” Crafton said.
The worker would not have been exposed to chemical vapors if Hanford had required every worker entering a tank farm to wear a supplied air respirator, Crafton said.
Supplied air respirators have been required in all Hanford tank farms in recent months after the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council issued a stop work order, unless the respirators are used within the tank farms.
Plaintiffs are asking that the judge issue a preliminary injunction requiring continued use of supplied air respirators in all tank farms until the case is decided.
They also want the area where the supplied air respirators are required — the vapor control zone — to be extended 200 feet beyond current tank farm boundaries if work that would disturb waste is being done.
DOE’s contractor has said expanding the vapor control zone would require buildings, roads and other infrastructure to be moved or replaced in a process that could take three years.
“It’s very significant,” said attorney Maureen Mitchell, representing Washington River Protection Solutions.
DOE is not disputing that timely cleanup is critical, Nitczynski said, and all parties agree that worker protection is key.