DOE responds to ‘Today’ show Hanford report

Workers at the Hanford 618-10 Burial Ground in Richland.
Workers at the Hanford 618-10 Burial Ground in Richland. Tri-City Herald file

The Department of Energy released a statement saying that its top priority at Hanford is safety of workers and nearby communities, after the NBC morning show, Today, devoted seven minutes Tuesday to Hanford.

The Today report was called “Is this America’s Chernobyl? Welcome to ‘the most toxic place in America.’ ”

It focused on worker exposure to chemical vapors that are associated with waste held in underground tanks at Hanford, and a 2012 report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board that said not enough was being done to prevent a buildup of flammable gases in storage tanks for radioactive waste.

Dozens of workers have been checked for exposure to the chemical vapors in the last year at Hanford, with all medically cleared to return to work, officials have said.

Since summer, workers have been wearing supplied air respirators to enter the Hanford tank farms to prevent inhalation of vapors.

The issue is playing out in a federal court case with the state of Washington, Hanford Challenge and union Local 598 suing DOE and its tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, over vapor protection.

The Department of Justice, representing DOE, has said in court documents that smelling a suspicious odor does not mean a worker is exposed to chemical vapors at harmful levels.

The Department of Justice also has argued that specific medical cases submitted by plaintiffs are largely unsupported by medication documentation.

Sampling data collected from gear worn by workers near their faces show that chemicals were present at less than 10 percent of the limits set to ensure that workers were not exposed to harmful levels, except in rare incidents, the department said in court documents.

But the state of Washington has countered that DOE’s arguments “amply demonstrate the backward thinking and outright denial lying at the root of the present endangerment at Hanford.”

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.

Over the last year DOE has invested $50 million on new equipment and safety measures and is testing new equipment to improve monitoring and tracking of vapors.

DOE continues to work on the 2012 defense board recommendation for gas buildup in tanks, after the defense board questioned an initial plan in late 2014.

DOE submitted a revised plan in September, outlining some work that had been completed and its plans for improvements of double shell tank ventilation.