Vapor protections could put new Hanford deadlines at risk

Courtesy DOE

Newly set deadlines for emptying some Hanford waste tanks might not be met if DOE takes certain steps to better protect workers from chemical vapors, according to a preliminary report.

The Department of Energy requested that its tank farm contractor look at the potential impact of a union demand that supplied air respirators be used not only within the boundaries of Hanford tank farms but in an expanded area of 200 feet beyond tank farm fences.

Contractor Washington River Protection Solutions concluded that rather than having five leak-prone tanks from a set of 12 emptied by the end of 2020, the work might not be completed until April 20, 2021.

In addition, nine tanks in the A and AX Tank Farms might not be emptied until March 2026. The current deadline is two years earlier.

The new deadlines were set by a federal judge six months ago as the 2010 court-enforced consent decree was revised because DOE then could not meet many of the remaining deadlines for emptying certain tanks and building and starting operation of the Hanford vitrification plant to treat the waste for disposal.

Hanford has 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste in underground tanks from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

DOE has notified the Washington State Department of Ecology of the possible issue with deadlines “in the spirit of cooperation and transparency,” Kevin Smith, DOE Office of River Protection manager at Hanford, said in a letter sent last week.

Using the safety of workers as an excuse for missing more deadlines is pathetic. When a federal court imposed a timetable for the cleanup in March, was (the Department of) Energy assuming it could only be met at the expense of workers’ health?

Bob Ferguson, Washington attorney general

The state of Washington regulates Hanford tank waste and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit that led to the consent decree.

“The federal government is offering more excuses,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, said in a statement Tuesday. His staff said that he was speaking on his own behalf rather than in his role as the attorney for the Department of Ecology.

“Using the safety of workers as an excuse for missing more deadlines is pathetic,” he said. “When a federal court imposed a timetable for the cleanup in March, was (the Department of) Energy assuming it could only be met at the expense of workers’ health?”

DOE is asking its tank farm contractor for more information as it evaluates the preliminary report and has not indicated that it agrees with the report’s findings.

In June, the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, an umbrella group for 15 Hanford unions, demanded that DOE take actions to better protect Hanford workers from breathing in chemical vapors associated with Hanford tank waste.

Measures included using supplied air respirators within the fence lines around all tank farms and also in a zone of 200 feet outside the fence line if work was being done that disturbed waste or otherwise increased the likelihood that vapors might be released.

In July, HAMTC followed up its demands by halting all work within tank farm boundaries unless workers inside the tank farm fence line were wearing supplied air respirators.

DOE responded by asking its tank farm contractors to evaluate the impacts to work and the budget for work of requiring supplied air respirators for work both in the tank farms and work within 200 feet outside the fence line if it increased the possibility of vapor emissions.

DOE is providing this information at this juncture in the spirit of cooperation and transparency.

Kevin Smith, manager of DOE Office of River Protection

The contractor’s preliminary report concluded that the 200-foot extension was the major issue because it would require more infrastructure at a cost of about $85 million for each of three years.

Roads would need to be closed and new roads established. Facilities just outside the tank farm fences — including control rooms and mask and access control stations — would need to be relocated. New administrative facilities would need to be designed and built.

An estimated 300 to 550 tank farm workers might be laid off as the infrastructure changes are made, the preliminary report said.

It estimated that the expanded vapor control area could add $512 million to $769 million in total costs, which is in addition to costs of up to $345 million for additional use of supplied air respirators.

However, some changes have happened since the preliminary report was requested in July.

In August, HAMTC conditionally lifted the stop work order requiring supplied air respirators inside the tank farm fences.

Supplied air respirators could no longer be required if respirator cartridges can be shown to protect workers. They would replace supplied air respirators that typically require workers to carry heavy bottles on their backs into the tank farms.

Hanford also is waiting for a decision in a second federal lawsuit brought by the state of Washington, this one to better protect Hanford workers from chemical vapors that could harm their health.

The state and other parties to the vapors lawsuit have asked that a judge extend the vapor control zone where workers are required to use supplied air respirators by 200 feet beyond a tank farm fence if waste is being disturbed within a tank farm. A hearing on the matter is scheduled Oct. 12 in Spokane.

DOE told the state Department of Ecology that it will keep it informed as it learns more about potential impacts from vapor protections on the schedule and budget for emptying tanks.

“In the event DOE determines that these events have created a serious risk that DOE may be unable to meet a consent decree milestone, DOE will promptly notify the state,” Smith said in his letter.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews