Hanford

Judge refuses to dismiss state’s Hanford vapors lawsuit

Hanford workers are currently required to wear supplied air respirators in the nuclear reservation’s tank farms as protection against breathing chemical vapors.
Hanford workers are currently required to wear supplied air respirators in the nuclear reservation’s tank farms as protection against breathing chemical vapors. Courtesy DOE

A federal judge has refused to dismiss the state of Washington’s lawsuit seeking better protection for Hanford workers from chemical vapors at the nuclear reservation.

Judge Thomas Rice filed the order on Thursday in Spokane, denying the motion brought by the Department of Energy and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions. The ruling allows the state’s lawsuit to continue.

“This motion was just another example of the federal government’s culture of indifference to worker safety at Hanford,” said state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “Rather than continuing to evade responsibility with procedural motions, the federal government and their contractor should focus on protecting Washington workers.”

The plaintiffs filed lawsuits in September 2015 alleging that hazardous tank vapors pose a serious risk to the health of workers at Hanford. Workers fear that inhaling the chemicals can cause serious neurological and respiratory illnesses.

Hanford’s underground tanks hold 56 million gallons of waste left from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

DOE has argued that the state lacked legal standing to bring the lawsuit and should be dismissed, but did not challenge the standing of Hanford Challenge and local Union 598. The Seattle advocacy group and union filed a similar lawsuit, which is being heard in conjunction with the state lawsuit against DOE and its contractor.

DOE claimed in its motion for dismissal that the state was overstepping its authority. It argued that the state could not file a lawsuit to vindicate the interest of a narrow subset of its citizens. Instead, tank farm workers could file their own lawsuit, DOE said.

The judge rejected that and other arguments.

Rice said that not only could about 2,000 tank farm workers be exposed to chemical vapors, but also other current Hanford workers near the tank farms and an unknown number of future workers.

The state has a far broader interest, than that of its citizens, in ensuring worker safety throughout Washington and the protection of future Hanford workers.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice

“The state has a far broader interest, than that of its citizens, in ensuring worker safety throughout Washington and the protection of future Hanford workers,” the judge said in the order.

Rice also found little merit to DOE’s argument that the state was interfering with the federal government’s superior claim to represent the general rights and welfare of its citizens.

The state is relying on the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to bring its lawsuit, and the act authorizes the state to file suit, the judge said.

The judge heard arguments Oct. 12 on the motion to dismiss the state, along with separate arguments on a motion brought by the plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction to provide immediate protections to Hanford workers until the lawsuit is resolved. The case is scheduled for trial in September 2017.

The judge has yet to rule on the request for a preliminary injunction.

The state and others are asking that mandatory use of supplied air respirators continue for anyone within the fence lines of the tank farms. The chemical vapors are associated with waste in underground tanks.

They also want supplied air respirators and other protective controls extended 200 feet beyond individual tank farm fences when work is being done in a tank farm that disturbs waste. Disturbing waste increases the chance of chemical vapors being released.

In addition, the plaintiffs want more monitoring equipment and alarms to protect and warn workers, which the tank farm contractor is testing now.

Tank farm workers were sent a message from Mark Lindholm, Washington River Protection Solutions president, after the judge’s order Thursday saying the company’s “commitment to protecting our work force remains unchanged as the legal matters work themselves out.”

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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