Hanford

Lawsuit claims some Hanford experts are unqualified to protect against harmful vapors

Looking for leaks inside Hanford’s oldest double shell tank

High pressure water is sprayed to move waste around on the bottom of the inner shell of Hanford Tank AY-102. Bubbles may indicate some of the seven leaks found inside the inner shell. No waste is believed to have escaped. (Video is mute)
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High pressure water is sprayed to move waste around on the bottom of the inner shell of Hanford Tank AY-102. Bubbles may indicate some of the seven leaks found inside the inner shell. No waste is believed to have escaped. (Video is mute)

The federal government has declined to join a lawsuit critical of the Hanford tank farm program that trains and qualifies the workers assigned to protect against chemical vapors.

Kevin Newcomb, a former industrial hygiene technician at Hanford for more than 20 years, filed the lawsuit against tank farm contractor Washington River Protection Solutions under the federal False Claims Act.

If the Department of Justice intervenes in such federal cases, whistleblowers, like Newcomb, may receive part of any money recovered. The act potentially rewards their efforts to expose government fraud.

The lawsuit was filed in October 2017, but was sealed and hidden from public view for about 20 months.

U.S. Judge Sal Mendoza Jr. unsealed the case, making it public, after the Justice Department decided last month not to join the case.

“The astonishing allegations in this complaint demand investigation,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based advocacy group for Hanford workers.

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Environmental cleanup is underway at the 580-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation. The underground tank farms, storing waste from the past production of plutonium, are in the center of the site. Courtesy Department of Energy

Hanford Challenge will be asking Congress and investigators to hold the tank farm contractor accountable for an effective program, he said.

Newcomb claims that Washington River Protection Solutions has allowed inexperienced and unqualified industrial hygiene technicians to work in the Hanford tank farms, where tank waste can release harmful chemical vapors.

Contractor says training is robust

Industrial hygiene technicians are responsible for helping make sure workers are safe from the vapors, including performing inspections and testing for the vapors and investigating incidents and accidents that may involve the harmful vapors.

Newcomb, who worked mostly in the nuclear reservation’s tank farms for more than 20 years, resigned after exposure to chemical vapors at the tank farms destroyed his health, according to Hanford Challenge.

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Workers use supplied air respirators and carry oxygen tanks to protect against breathing harmful chemical vapors at much of the Hanford tank farms. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for information on why it decided against becoming a party to the lawsuit.

Washington River Protection Solutions, owned by Aecom and Atkins, also declined to talk because the lawsuit remains active.

But it released a statement saying it takes employee concerns seriously.

“WRPS has addressed chemical vapors-related concerns by implementing robust control measures, comprehensive training practices and significantly upgrading infrastructure, equipment and monitoring so workers are safe and feel safe,” it said.

The lawsuit said that a comprehensive look at chemical vapor issues at Hanford in 2014 led by the Savannah River National Laboratory found that the contractor’s staffing and training for industrial hygiene was inadequate.

Lawsuit says contractor paid

As a result WRPS revised its chemical vapor management strategy, including making plans to increase staffing and enhance training and qualifications for staff, according to the lawsuit.

The contractor received DOE money for those and other chemical vapor safety improvements and was able to earn incentive pay based, in part, on making improvements, according to the lawsuit.

But the training and qualification process for industrial hygiene technicians fell short of requirements and planned improvements, the lawsuit said.

Underqualified industrial hygiene technicians were allowed to work in the tank farms, sometimes in areas with which they were not familiar, it said.

In one example, technicians did not understand sample handling requirements, including requirements that sample tubes be chilled, the lawsuit said.

Required performance evaluations were done in group settings with some workers answering questions but all workers then approved as qualified, the lawsuit said.

Periodic requalification of workers was marked as completed, but training was not done as required on specialize topics for the requalification, the lawsuit said.

Most industrial hygiene classroom instructors also lacked the expertise and field experience to provide training, the lawsuit said.

“There are many decades ahead of us for the cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site, and workers deserve the best possible protections of their health and safety,” Carpenter said.

Hanford Challenge consulted on the legal case, but the attorneys of record were from Smith & Lowney Law Firm in Seattle and Mehri & Skalet in Washington, D.C.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.
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