Hanford workers question tank vapor information

Work is shown underway at Hanford's C Tank Farm.
Work is shown underway at Hanford's C Tank Farm. The Associated Press

Current and retired workers at a Hanford Challenge meeting on chemical vapors were skeptical that the Department of Energy really knows what workers are exposed to at the Hanford tank farms.

About 50 people attended the meeting in Richland Wednesday evening.

The Department of Energy has said sampling has found no exposure over the occupational limit set to protect people from harm for the 38 workers who received medical evaluations for possible exposure since March.

But workers continue to have symptoms after smelling tank vapors and some workers with chronic exposure are on long-term disability.

Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a worker advocacy group, said one Spokane neurologist has diagnosed 26 workers with the brain disease toxic encephalopathy.

"The federal government is asking us to go out there and do our part in the cleanup of Hanford and the citizens of the Northwest are relying on us," said Pete Nicacio, business manager for Local 598 of the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters. "I'm sick and tired of hearing that people are not getting sick, that there is nothing going on out there."

Some of the 38 workers who received medical checks this spring are still experiencing health effects from exposures, although all appear to have returned to work, according to Hanford Challenge. DOE officials who could respond to questions were not at the meeting.

Concerns have been raised for at least 20 years about chemical vapors coming from Hanford's underground tanks, which hold a mix of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste from the past production of weapons plutonium.

Thirty studies have been done through the years, Carpenter said, and the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina is currently conducting another comprehensive study requested by DOE contractor Washington River Protection Solutions.

Mike Geffre, a retired instrument technician at the Hanford tank farms who moderated the meeting, said he agreed with a woman who said that Hanford was not taking responsibility for worker exposures to tank vapors because that would open them up to liability.

"It is difficult to explain the amount of suffering workers are going though," said David Patrick, project steward for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The sorts of incidents when workers "go down" -- have their breath taken away and go to their knees -- happens at Hanford only at the tank farms, he said.

In previous periods when workers were required to use supplied air respirators, there were no incidents, even during times when waste was being pumped and vapors are most likely to be released from underground tanks, he said.

Hanford officials may not have the right instruments to detect the vapors or the instruments may not exist, Patrick said.

"I don't care," he said. "... you are supposed to protect people against the things you know about and the things you don't."

Recommendations have been made that have not been implemented, he said. They include putting chemical vapor scrubbers on tanks where work is being performed, which Hanford Challenge wants done now, and extending vapor venting stacks into the desert far away from workers.

A former industrial hygienist at Hanford, who declined to be identified, said he was skeptical about the quality of the work that went into creating the Industrial Hygiene Chemical Vapor Technical Basis issued in 2006. Many mistakes were made in quality assurance, including correct storage of samples, he said. Because some occupational limits for safe exposure to chemicals are in the range of parts per billion, it takes time to detect them and any sample is just a snapshot in time.

"DOE has a lot of good people that want to do the right thing, but they have bad information," he said.

Savannah River National Lab should conduct its own sampling of tank vapors, rather than relying on past sampling, Patrick said.

Now "people don't trust the science," he said.

Information does not exist on how more than 1,000 chemicals in the vapors may interact with each other, Carpenter said. He used the example of ammonia and chlorine bleach, which are both fine when used separately in the home as cleaning agents, but are toxic when combined.

DOE is not paying enough attention to what the workers in the field say and know, Carpenter said. "We have a lot of knowledge in this room," he said.

Several steps have been taken by the tank farm contractor in recent months, including increasing requirements for respiratory protection to require at least half-face respirators if there is a suspected risk of vapor exposure. Workers can voluntarily upgrade to full-face or supplied air respirators, and the contractor is working to make the process of upgrading easier for workers.

Engineers also are considering better controls such as remote stacks to release vapors farther away from workers, and better respiratory protection devices are being investigated, the contractor has said. The Chemical Vapors Solutions Team, which includes worker and management members, has been reorganized to look for solutions and promote two-way communication between workers and managers.

Hanford Challenge wants Hanford officials to resample the head spaces of the oldest tanks, which have vapors vented into the atmosphere, and to resample the newer tanks, which are ventilated through stacks, using a heated vapor probe so vapors can be sampled from the exhausters without condensation diluting the chemicals.

Policies should acknowledge the uncertainty of vapor monitoring and require supplied air respirators when systems do not exist to measure exposure in real time, according to Hanford Challenge.

The group also wants sampling to be performed with strict quality control oversight as well as third party oversight to ensure proper methods are used.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews