Vapors, delays discussed in Seattle at Hanford State of the Site meeting

Delays in Hanford environmental cleanup and worker exposures to toxic vapors were among the topics raised by Seattle area residents at Hanford's first State of the Site meeting this year.

A series of four meetings opened in Seattle on Tuesday evening, with about 50 people attending. The fourth State of the Site meeting will be in Richland later this month.

More than two dozen Hanford workers have received medical attention or evaluations this spring after being exposed to possible chemical vapors that vent from Hanford nuclear reservation's underground tanks holding waste.

Some of them will have long-term health consequences from the exposures, said Meredith Crafton of Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based Hanford watchdog and worker advocacy group.

"These workers are on the front line doing really difficult work for all generations to come," said a woman who identified herself only as Emily.

The Department of Energy is working to get the issue of tank vapors under control once and for all, said Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Office of River Protection. The vapors have been an issue for workers in the tank farms for at least two decades.

Vapor exposure standards have dropped to lower and lower levels through the years, but workers may have individual sensitivities to chemicals, he said.

DOE is interested in newly available devices that can test the personal breathing space of workers for chemicals, he said. Now, when vapors are smelled and industrial hygienists then try to detect them, they often have already dispersed into the air.

DOE is bringing in national experts in industrial hygiene for an independent assessment. And it is looking at physical changes, such as raising more of the stacks that vent vapors to better disperse the vapors and keep them away from workers. Workers also can wear respirators in the tank farms, Smith said.

"We do take it seriously," he said.

Others at the meeting questioned why more money was not available to speed Hanford cleanup.

Hanford has had up to $2.2 billion in recent years, but up to $500 million of that covers routine operating expenses that range from utilities to roads to security on the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation, according to DOE.

"Most find the continual excuse of lack of funding unacceptable," Nancy Morris told DOE. "It is your responsibility to get money for cleanup."

The budget is based on decisions made in the nation's executive branch and Congress based on priorities across the nation, said Matt McCormick, manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office.

Another person at the meeting asked why Washington fines for problems at Hanford seemed relatively modest.

In January, the state Department of Ecology fined the federal Department of Energy $261,000, but agreed to forgive all but $15,000 if improvements in waste management are made on schedule.

Any fines levied against DOE at Hanford are paid out of the budget for environmental cleanup, said Jane Hedges, the director of the state Department of Ecology's Nuclear Waste Program.

"We have to be very thoughtful but serious when we issue penalties," she said.

DOE also responded to a question from Tom Buchanan of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility on why the 618-11 Burial Ground near Energy Northwest's commercial nuclear power plant has not been cleaned up.

It may be the most hazardous burial ground at Hanford along the Columbia River, containing plutonium among other contaminants.

Work is being done first on the 618-10 Burial Ground just off the main Hanford highway north of Richland to gain experience, said Dennis Faulk, Hanford program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency.

"618-10 is also very nasty, but not as nasty," he said.

The 618-11 Burial Ground is the final one scheduled to be cleaned up in the area along the river, and the work has been complicated because it is just off the parking lot of a working nuclear reactor, McCormick said. Work is required to be completed in 2018.

State of the Site meetings will continue with a session Wednesday in Portland and Thursday in Hood River, Ore. The Richland meeting will be April 29 at the Red Lion Hotel Hanford House in Richland. Doors open to view displays at 5:30 p.m., the Hanford story video will be shown at 6:15 p.m., and the meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews