Battelle to pay $200,000 due to PNNL beryllium issues

Battelle has agreed to pay $200,000 to the federal government and make safety improvements to resolve an investigation by the Department of Energy into its program to protect workers from the metal beryllium.

Battelle, which operates Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, failed to conduct routine sampling for beryllium for several years, according to a consent order released Thursday by the Department of Energy Office of Enforcement.

Beryllium was used at PNNL, and more extensively at Hanford, until the mid-’80s and is still present in some older facilities. Workers with an genetic sensitivity to the metal can develop a chronic and incurable lung disease if they breathe in fine particles.

The issue came to light after three milling machines contaminated with beryllium were removed as excess equipment from the machine shop at PNNL’s Radiochemical Process Laboratory, one of the buildings PNNL continues to use in the Hanford 300 Area just north of Richland.

Three months later in December 2013 workers asked about the lack of sampling done for beryllium on the equipment. Sampling then showed that inaccessible parts of the equipment had beryllium contamination that exceeded limits for the release of equipment.

Battelle also conducted a review of its Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program and found that sampling had not been done routinely in areas potentially contaminated with beryllium since 2005. In addition, documents used to support the planning of work to identify beryllium hazards were not consistent with PNNL’s program requirements and did not accurately reflect conditions at the national lab, according to the Office of Enforcement.

PNNL also determined in February 2014 that 50 employees were dropped from enrollment in a voluntary medical surveillance program for beryllium after the lab switched to a new occupational medical provider in October 2012 rather than continue to use the Hanford medical provider. An investigation into the program was conducted after a PNNL worker reported that medical staff had not contacted him about program services.

PNNL has one former employee with chronic beryllium disease. In addition, 16 of its current staff of about 3,900 workers in the Tri-Cities have been diagnosed with beryllium sensitization. Workers who test positive for beryllium sensitization are at risk of developing chronic beryllium disease and further exposure to beryllium may increase the risk.

About 10 of PNNL’s current 78 facilities have a history of beryllium use, but in most cases only trace amounts were used. Most of the potential beryllium contamination is in the Radiochemical Process Laboratory, also called the 325 Building, and the Research Technology Laboratory on PNNL’s main Richland campus.

The Office of Enforcement agreed to Battelle’s request to resolve the issue with a consent order based on Battelle’s response to issues. Battelle promptly and accurately reported all issues to the Office of Enforcement and conducted a thorough and self-critical evaluation of compliance issues, Steven Simonson, director of the DOE office said in a letter to Battelle.

Battelle also has a plan to correct issues which will prevent recurrence, he said. Battelle will provide quarterly updates on work to correct issues.

Battelle took action as soon as the issues were discovered and has continued to implement changes and improvements, said Battelle spokesman Greg Koller.

“Despite the deficiencies in the program, we have a high degree of confidence that we have protected our staff, visitors and subcontractors, from beryllium exposure,” he said.

Since 2001 it has collected more than 10,000 samples by wiping surfaces and hundreds of air samples, he said. No airborne samples were found that required action under DOE or Office of Safety and Health Administration regulations, he said.

“All along, our utmost concern has been for worker safety,” he said. Significant resources were devoted to multiple internal investigations of beryllium protection issues.

In addition to investigating the beryllium protection program, Battelle also is checking to make sure similar weaknesses have not happened in implementing other health and safety programs.

It identified five other programs that potentially could have weaknesses. Reviews of three of those programs have been completed with no indications of deficiencies or a failure to fully implement them, Koller said.