Dave Klug walked out of a Hanford tank farm control room on a cold, calm night in January 2010 into air that took his breath away.
“Immediately, I had tightness in my chest. I lost feeling in my face. My heart rate was going crazy,” he said.
Klug, a longtime Hanford tank farm worker, was one of several workers who talked about their experiences with chemical vapors at a forum Wednesday night in Pasco.
Klug was off work for 11 months after that night and now has 30 percent permanent, partial disability for reactive airway disease and occupational asthma, he said.
Those who talked at the forum kept coming back to two types of illnesses they believe are caused by chemical vapors — breathing problems, as Klug described, and neurological issues, including a brain disease called toxic encephalopathy.
Toxic encephalopathy is what Barbara Sall said led to the dementia and death of her husband, a Hanford carpenter who died at the age of 57.
The forum — organized by Hanford Challenge, union Local 598 and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson — drew about 200 people. The two agencies and the state of Washington have filed a federal lawsuit seeking better protection from chemical vapors for Hanford workers.
The Department of Energy, the target of the lawsuit along with its tank farm contractor, has said that all air samples analyzed from the breathing zones of workers since 2005 have not found chemicals in concentrations above the occupational limits set to protect workers.
Obviously people are hurting, people are sick and something needs to be done.
Mike Lawrence, former DOE Hanford manager
In recent months, about 53 workers have received medical checks for possible exposure to chemical vapors at Hanford, but all have been cleared to return to work when no symptoms were detected, according to DOE. Blood tests also have come back clear.
But such statements have been met with skepticism.
One worker at the meeting said it seemed that the tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, did not care about sick workers when it recently pointed out that it had the second-best safety record in the nationwide DOE cleanup complex.
“They are going to eat those words” when they lose the lawsuit, said James Hart, national president of the Metal Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.
Mike Lawrence, the DOE Hanford manager from 1984-90, said he has been following the issue closely.
A significant number of workers have experienced health effects or symptoms, Lawrence said. There could be a correlation between the illnesses and toxic fumes from chemicals in waste tanks.
But DOE says it cannot measure chemicals in vapors at levels that current occupational standards say would cause a problem.
We are all fighting for the people in this room.
James Hart, AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department president
“Obviously people are hurting, people are sick and something needs to be done,” Lawrence said.
He proposed that an independent, experienced and qualified third party, chosen jointly by DOE and the state of Washington, collect data.
Although a team of experts led by the Savannah River National Laboratory prepared the latest report on Hanford tank vapors, the report has no credibility to some because the lab is part of the DOE system, Lawrence said.
He suggested the University of Washington School of Public Health as a possible independent agency for the work.
Unless DOE can prove that workers are not being exposed to chemical vapors, protective gear should be worn, he said.
Supplied air respirators are required if Hanford officials suspect conditions that could cause the release of chemical vapors. The Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council has demanded that supplied air respirators be mandatory for any worker in the tank farms, and in some cases workers near the farms.
Klug said the tank farm contractor just needs to fix the problem. Work to raise discharge stacks from the tanks so they are farther from worker’s noses is not enough, he said.
It has to be DOE’s responsibility to keep workers safe, said Steven Gilbert, director of the nonprofit Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders in Seattle and a Hanford Challenge board member.
“It’s a witches brew of chemical in the tanks,” he said.
My life ended that day as I knew it.
Diana Gegg, former Hanford worker
Exactly which chemicals workers are exposed to is not known, Gilbert said. But he can say that inhaled chemicals can cause problems. The chemicals can go from the lungs to the brain quickly.
People have different sensitivities to chemical vapors, said Rick Jansons, a former Hanford worker who is running for the state Legislature. Incumbent Brad Klippert also was at the meeting.
Jansons has been exposed three times and has developed no symptoms, but it is obvious that other people are getting sick, he said.
Diana Gegg, a former heavy equipment operator at Hanford, said she was 600 yards away from a reported vapor cloud in 2007 when she was exposed. Within a week she developed flu-like symptoms, plus vision problems diagnosed as muscle dysfunction.
She eventually had to stop driving and has been diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy and neurotoxicity, she said. Hanford officials have denied she was injured.
“My life ended that day as I knew it,” she said.
Hart, the national union official, said he has looked at the cause of death for Hanford workers represented by Local 598 back to 1988 and sees a pattern of deaths caused by cancer and respiratory illness for workers not yet 65 years old.
Younger workers at the tank farms are afraid to speak up about their concerns, Klug said.
Any worker under the union umbrella of the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council who raises tank vapor concerns will have the full protection of the AFL-CIO’s national Metal Trades Council, Hart said.
“We are all fighting for the people in this room,” he told the crowd.