Judge denies state request for increased Hanford vapor protections

Hanford workers now are required to use supplied air respirators within the nuclear reservation’s tank farms.
Hanford workers now are required to use supplied air respirators within the nuclear reservation’s tank farms. Courtesy DOE

A federal judge has denied the state of Washington’s request for increased protections for Hanford workers while a lawsuit against the Department of Energy and its tank farm contractor is heard.

Hanford workers already are protected by a requirement that supplied air respirators be used within the tank farms — areas where waste is stored in underground tanks at the nuclear reservation, said U.S. Judge Thomas Rice in a ruling issued Tuesday afternoon.

However, his ruling should not be taken to mean that exposure to vapors is not a serious issue for workers, he said.

The state of Washington, Hanford Challenge and union Local 598 had asked the judge for a preliminary injunction that would have required DOE and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, to better protect workers.

Mark Lindholm, president of Washington River Protection Solutions, told employees in a message that the judge’s decision recognizes the steps the company has taken as the tank farm contractor to protect worker safety and health.

“It is, and always will be, my expectation that safety comes first for WRPS employees,” he said in the message. “We will continue to partner with the union in good faith to ensure our workforce is protected.”

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement after the ruling that he would be watching to make sure current protections WRPS has instituted remain in place while the case proceeds. The case is scheduled for trial in September.

Plaintiffs had made three requests, all denied by the court, in their preliminary injunction motions.

They wanted the requirement for supplied air respirators within the tank farms to be mandated by the court.

They wanted to extend the area where the respirators and other protections are required to 200 feet beyond tank farm fence lines when work is done that disturbs waste, increasing the likelihood of chemical vapors being released. The vapors are associated with waste stored in underground tanks.

In addition, they wanted the court to mandate and expand the use of new vapor monitoring and detection methods being tested by the tank farm contractor.

No worker had reported a possible exposure to chemical vapors since supplied air respirators were mandated in August, the judge said.

WRPS began requiring employees to used supplied air at single-shell tank farms, where tanks vent into the atmosphere, since December 2014 and at double-shell tank farms, where tanks have exhausters, since July 11, 2016, the judge said.

As of Aug. 3, 2016, the tank farm contractor voluntarily agreed to continue requiring supplied air respirators within the tank farms.

The tank farm contractor has always permitted, and even promoted, the voluntary use of supplied air respirators even when they are not required, the judge said. WRPS also has allowed workers to choose not to perform a task if a respiratory upgrade is not appropriate, the judge said.

“At this stage, the court finds that plaintiffs have failed to make a clear showing to meet their burden that an imminent and substantial endangerment to health may presently exist,” the judge said in his order.

Although there may not be a current threat of harm to workers, “the court does not deny that vapor exposures have occurred or that employees have experienced serious vapor-related illnesses,” the judge said.

DOE’s arguments debunking and minimizing Hanford employees’ claims of illness are unpersuasive, Rice said.

DOE has argued that symptoms reported by workers, such as headaches and coughing, are common in the general population.

The state argued that workers had been sickened for decades at Hanford from inhaling chemical vapors. Hanford Challenge said that some workers have developed serious respiratory and neurological illnesses from chemical exposure.

Both plaintiffs and defendants relied on the Tank Vapors Assessment Team Report in their arguments, the judge said. The report was the result of an investigation commissioned by Washington River Protection Solutions in 2014 to assess the risks posed by vapors.

WRPS had shown that progress was being made to test and implement new real-time monitoring and detection technology, as recommended in the report, the judge said.

The report made no mention of expanding the vapor protection zone to 200 feet beyond the fence line of individual tank farms, the judge said.

He also said that the 200-foot distance was arbitrary and impractical.

Plaintiffs had argued that the expansion was needed because two people reported a suspicious odor several hundred yards away from a tank farm in April 2016.

DOE’s contractor said that a 200-foot-expansion beyond tank farm fences would have significant impacts, including requiring buildings and roads to be moved. Work delays and possible staff reductions could result, WRPS said.

The judge said that given efforts to address the recommendations in the Tank Vapors Assessment Team Report and current protections in place, the minimal risk to employees would not outweigh the consequence of delaying work to empty waste from leak-prone underground tanks.

The environmental cleanup work being done at the tank farms is “a critical race against the clock,” he said.

“Delaying the critical radioactive waste remediation work underway is a strongly determinative reason in favor of denying the injunction,” the judge said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews