State blasts DOE claim that Hanford workers are protected

Hanford workers are using supplied air respirators within the Hanford tank farms for protection against chemical vapors associated with waste in underground tanks.
Hanford workers are using supplied air respirators within the Hanford tank farms for protection against chemical vapors associated with waste in underground tanks. Courtesy WRPS

The alarm sounded as the ammonia in the air overwhelmed a hand-held monitor near a Hanford waste tank.

An industrial hygiene technician was checking the air May 2 while a Hanford instrument specialist helped calibrate instruments for a double-shell tank. Immediately, the specialist was hit with an overpowering odor.

He began coughing and his nose began to bleed steadily. He grew dizzy, his head throbbed and then he started vomiting as he headed toward a trailer where workers change in and out of protective clothing.

At least two other workers suffered similar symptoms, said the state of Washington, which recounted the incident in new documents in its lawsuit seeking better protection for Hanford workers from chemical vapors associated with waste in underground tanks.

Wednesday a federal court judge is scheduled to hear arguments in Spokane on the state’s request for a preliminary injunction requiring the Department of Energy and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, to take certain steps to further protect workers until the case can be decided.

From January through July of this year, Hanford workers reported suspicious smells or symptoms that could indicate exposure to chemical vapors 54 times, according to court documents.

The judge also will hear arguments on DOE’s motion asking that the state’s case be dismissed. The motion does not extend to the others that have filed suit, Hanford Challenge and union Local 598.

Defendants’ responses amply demonstrate the backward thinking and outright denial lying at the root of the present endangerment at Hanford.

State of Washington

The state blasted DOE in court documents for the federal agency’s contention that plaintiffs had not shown harm to Hanford workers from vapors.

“(DOE’s arguments) amply demonstrate the backward thinking and outright denial lying at the root of the present endangerment at Hanford,” the state said in court documents.

DOE has argued that symptoms such as headaches are common among all people and do not necessarily indicate exposure to vapors.

The state called that claim “astounding” and said it “strains credulity.”

“Defendants … summarily dismiss their own tally of worker exposures by concluding that the headaches, dizziness, bloody noses, shortness of breath and gagging — simultaneously experienced by scores of Hanford workers exposed to chemical vapors earlier this year — are mere happenstance,” the state said in a court document.

In all cases this year in which workers received medical exams for potential exposures, they were released to return to work by the Hanford medical provider.

But Hanford Challenge and Local 598 said that through the years workers have been admitted to hospitals, diagnosed with debilitating lung and neurological impairment, and been unable to return to work.

Only judicial intervention will protect workers until this case is finally resolved.

State of Washington

DOE has no documentation of long-term effects of vapor exposures because its occupational health provider has no policy for long-term follow-up after worker exposures, Hanford Challenge and Local 598 said.

DOE also ignored “the fact that Hanford workers encounter a uniquely hazardous cocktail of two or more of the thousands of hazardous chemicals present in the tanks,” the state said.

DOE said in its filings in the case that except in rare instances, vapor sampling results from monitors worn by workers near their faces show that chemicals are present at less than 10 percent of the limits set to ensure that workers were not exposed to harmful levels.

Plaintiffs questioned the the effectiveness of monitoring equipment and the way DOE’s contractor calculates vapor exposure.

In the May 2 incident, when a hand-held monitor that could measure up to 99 parts per million ammonia was overwhelmed by the concentration, the chemicals were not captured by the personal monitor of the instrument specialist who became sick, according to the state. The personal monitors may not be able to capture brief, but intense, chemical emissions, according to court documents.

DOE contractor calculations averaged the reading from the hand-held monitor from the brief burst of vapors over an eight hour period, according to plaintiffs.

The state and other plaintiffs are asking in its request for a preliminary injunction that supplied air respirators be required for any worker entering the fences around Hanford tank farms.

Motions will be heard at 9:45 a.m. Oct. 12 in the federal courthouse in Spokane before Judge Thomas Rice.

However, they agreed that workers instead could use respirators with cartridges to filter chemicals if an industrial hygienist chosen by plaintiffs determines that would be safe.

Washington River Protection Solutions already is requiring supplied air respirators inside tank farms in response to the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, but the Hanford union group has agreed that testing might show respirators with cartridges to be a safe replacement.

Plaintiffs also are asking that the vapor protection zones, in which supplied air respirators now are required, be extended 200 feet beyond tank farm fences when work is being done that could increase the potential for chemical vapor releases.

The expanded area includes buildings and roads, which DOE has said would be expensive and time-consuming to move.

However, the state said reasonable and practical accommodations, including building exemptions, are possible in the proposed expanded vapor protection zones.

The court hearing is set for 9:45 a.m. in the federal courthouse at 920 West Riverside Ave., Spokane.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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