This lawsuit would protect Hanford workers from deadly vapors. Now there’s a settlement

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson holds up 19 reports and studies done on worker exposure to chemical vapors from waste held in Hanford tank when he filed a lawsuit in September 2015.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson holds up 19 reports and studies done on worker exposure to chemical vapors from waste held in Hanford tank when he filed a lawsuit in September 2015. Associated Press File

A settlement agreement has been reached in a 3-year-old lawsuit filed by Washington state to better protect workers from chemical vapors at the Hanford nuclear reservation, the parties announced Wednesday.

Washington state, watchdog group Hanford Challenge and union Local 598 filed suit against the Department of Energy and its tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions owned by AECOM and Atkins, in September 2015.

The settlement agreement in the federal court lawsuit signed Wednesday does not dismiss the lawsuit, but puts it on hold as DOE continues to improve safety for tank farm workers.

Improvements may include the first technology to be used at Hanford to destroy chemical vapors rather than contain them or keep them away from workers.

If DOE does not take actions required in the settlement agreement, the lawsuit will be reactivated by the state, said state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

DOE also is required to pay the state of Washington and Hanford Challenge $925,000 for their costs in the lawsuit, he said.

Workers exposed to chemical vapors associated with waste held in underground tanks have reported symptoms such as nosebleeds, headaches, difficulty breathing, coughing, sore throats and dizziness. Hanford has 56 million gallons of waste held in underground tanks from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

More troubling are plaintiff reports of workers who have developed serious long-term respiratory or neurological illnesses, some of them fatal, after being exposed to tank vapors.

“It’s time that the Department of Energy faces up to the fact that people are getting sick, instead of trying to deny it,” Abe Garza said at a press conference organized by Ferguson.

Garza, a former longtime Hanford worker, has been repeatedly hospitalized for breathing issues, has nerve damage in his hands and feet, and has been diagnosed with of a brain disorder, toxic encephalopathy, that can be caused by exposure to chemicals, like heavy metals.

Hanford worker exposures to chemical vapors have continued for decades, with studies done to identify issues but no lasting measures taken to protect workers, Ferguson said.

The agreement gives the state everything it was seeking had the case proceeded to trial, he said.

“Under this agreement, the cycle of exposure and illness due to unprotected chemical vapor exposures is finally being addressed and, hopefully, resolved,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge.

The settlement agreement acknowledges work DOE and its contractor have done in recent years to better protect workers, according to DOE.

Hanford workers are required to wear supplied air respirators for most work inside the nuclear reservation’s tank farms as protection against breathing in chemical vapors. Kimberly Teske Fetrow Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

But it also lays out legally enforceable requirements for more work to protect workers.

Testing being done now must be completed on a system that would destroy chemical vapors.

It is designed to pull tank vapors into a combustion chamber and use heat to reduce organic chemical concentration, according to the agreement. Mercury would be filtered and removed.

The technology appears promising and could be in use in about three years, according to Ferguson.

The tank farm contractor, working with DOE, began exploring new technology to protect workers — including by destroying vapors — before the lawsuit was filed. It was one of dozens of recommendations made by a team of independent experts commissioned in spring 2014 and led by Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina.

Testing also is underway at Hanford on a vapor control system that uses a high-velocity fan to mix the gases and vapors in ventilation stacks from the tanks with clean air. It would expel the diluted mixture at high speed well above where workers breathe in air.

The system is sometimes used for exhaust fumes at parking garages.

Other requirements in the settlement address vapor monitoring and sharing of information on vapor events and worker health monitoring. Work has already been completed to install public address systems in the tank farms to provide immediate notification of possible vapors to employees.

In another twist in the settlement, the agreement requires a change to a separate Washington state lawsuit filed against DOE.

DOE said the agreement goes into effect only if the court grants a joint motion to extend certain deadlines set by the federal court in 2016 for emptying waste from some leak-prone single-shell tanks holding radioactive and chemical waste.

Strobic air unit.JPG
Testing is being done for Hanford use of a high velocity fan system that could mix chemical vapors with air and expel them at high speed well above the air that workers breathe. Courtesy Department of Energy

Settlement talks on the lawsuit began in late 2016 after a federal judge denied the state of Washington’s request for increased protections for Hanford workers until the lawsuit was resolved.

Hanford workers already were 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 in November 2016.

The Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, an umbrella group of 15 unions doing work at Hanford, issued a stop work order in July 2016, halting work unless workers were wearing supplied air respirators in tank farms. HAMTC has since agreed to very limited use of air-purifying respirators as an alternative when the risk of vapors is very low.

Although Rice denied the state’s request in November 2016, he also said his ruling should not be taken to mean that exposure to vapors is not a serious issue for workers, he said.

“The court does not deny that vapor exposures have occurred or that employees have experienced serious vapor-related illnesses,” he said.

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

DOE said in a statement Wednesday that worker safety is its top priority.

Washington River Protection Solutions, in conjunction with DOE and cooperation from HAMTC, “continues to take a very conservative approach to protecting workers from potential exposures to chemical vapors,” DOE said.

“The settlement agreement is based on and reinforces this ongoing effort,” it said.

In 2016, more than 60 Hanford workers reported smelling a suspicious odor or experiencing symptoms consistent with chemical vapors.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said that thousands of air samples showed few, if any, exposures exceeding limits set to keep workers safe from chemical vapors.

The number of workers making similar reports of possible exposures has declined dramatically since use of supplied air respirators has increased.

However, on Tuesday a worker who was not wearing a supplied air respirator as work was being done to lay asphalt at the SX Tank Farm reported a suspicious odor. He was given a precautionary medical evaluation and cleared to return to work.

It was the first possible vapors incident at Hanford in nearly three months.

Through the decades at Hanford the number of workers who may have been exposed to chemical vapors likely numbers in the thousands, Carpenter said.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews