Washington’s U.S. senators have added their voices to the calls for the Department of Energy to protect Hanford tank farm workers from chemical vapors.
Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Rep. Adam Smith, all Washington Democrats, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Friday urging DOE to improve the working conditions for Hanford workers.
Between spring and now, 55 Hanford workers have received medical evaluations for possible exposure to vapors from waste held in underground tanks since the days when Hanford produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Workers are concerned that exposure to the chemicals could lead to serious illnesses long term.
Washington River Protection Solutions, the Hanford tank farm contractor, commissioned an independent assessment of tank vapor protection, which concluded in late October that there is “a causal link between chemical vapor releases and subsequent health effects, particularly upper respiratory irritation, experienced by tank farm workers.”
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The letter said that “it is now time for DOE to take swift and definitive actions to implement the recommendations within the report.”
The Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report made clear that there are shortfalls within the existing industrial hygiene program, the letter said. The report focused on brief exposures to relatively high concentrations of chemicals and said existing programs were not designed to detect those sorts of exposures.
The report made 47 recommendations, and Washington River Protection Solutions said earlier this month that it already started to implement about half of them. The letter acknowledged progress already made and said it is critical that Hanford implement the remaining recommendations as quickly as possible.
Washington River Protection Solutions estimated that full implementation, with some recommendations requiring research projects, would take four or five years. This week it presented a draft implementation plan to officials who conducted the assessment.
The letter asked for a response on when the implementation plan would be completed and requested that it include a clear schedule for the near-, mid- and long-term recommendations and the resources necessary to carry them out successfully.
DOE was encouraged to add a specific line item starting in the fiscal 2016 budget request that calls out money for the plan, which would make spending easier to track. DOE also should clearly outline a process to monitor, document and report progress as recommended by the report, the letter said.
The tank farm contractor previously said that it expected to have a final implementation plan released to the public in December. However, since it made that projection, the state and other groups have filed notices of intent to file lawsuits, which could expand the parties having a say in the plan.
Dave Olson, president of Washington River Protection Solutions, said that he plans to run the implementation of recommendations like a project, with clear cost and schedule projections that can be reviewed and monitored.
He also said that the implementation plan will organize recommendations into short-, intermediate- and long-term actions.
DOE said in an earlier statement that it will “use the results of the report to institutionalize improvements to ensure enduring changes are made to the tank farms and ... industrial hygiene programs that will protect workers in the near term and into the future.”