A federal judge has ordered another delay in the trial on demands for better protection for Hanford workers.
It is the second time this year U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice in Spokane has agreed to postpone the trial as the parties pursue mediation talks.
The parties in the case have made progress in settlement talks but have not reached an agreement, they told the judge last week.
On Friday, Rice agreed to delay the Richland trial from March 2018 to April 2018, at the request of both sides. At the start of the year the trial was set for this fall.
If the trial was not delayed, parties would have less time to meet interim deadlines, including a deadline for some expert reports due next week.
The state of Washington, Hanford Challenge and union Local 598, representing Hanford pipefitters, filed the lawsuit in September 2015 against the Department of Energy and its Hanford tank farm contractor.
The lawsuit is over concerns that workers were being exposed to harmful chemical vapors associated with waste held in Hanford’s underground tanks.
The state of Washington has argued that workers have 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.
The court does not deny that vapor exposures have occurred or that employees have experienced serious vapor-related illnesses.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice
The parties held their first mediation session April 20-21 in Seattle. Another session is set for May 18-19.
The parties told the judge that they may request more delays if they agree that continued talks or other settlement negotiations would be productive.
Mediation started after Rice ruled against the plantiffs’ request that the court require immediate increased worker protections. The judge found that Hanford workers were already protected until the trial by mandatory supplied air respirators for most work within Hanford tank farms.
However, he also said his ruling should not be taken as an indication that exposure to vapors is not a serious issue.
“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 illnesses are unpersuasive, he said.
DOE has invested $50 million in two years to increase worker protection and is working on more improvements for an additional $65 million.
The underground tanks must be vented or exhausted to the atmosphere to preserve nuclear safety, so efforts are focused on minimizing and controlling vapors where people are working.
The state is asking in the lawsuit for the court to take all actions needed to eliminate danger from tank vapors, which it said could include independent oversight, improved controls to keep chemicals from entering the environment, better monitoring and expanded requirements for supplied air respirators.
Hanford Challenge and Local 598 are making additional requests, including requirements for ongoing comprehensive medical monitoring of past and present Hanford workers and communication of complete information to workers and the public about vapor exposure incidents.