The Department of Energy and its Hanford tank farm contractor have been sent a second notice of an intent to file a lawsuit to protect Hanford workers from chemical vapors, this one by Hanford Challenge, union Local 598 and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The groups announced their possible lawsuit in Pasco Thursday, a day after Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the state has sent a notice of intent to sue.
“We have had enough,” said Pete Nicacio, business manager for United Association of Steamfitters and Plumbers, Local 598. “They don’t have the monitoring equipment in place. They don’t have enough people to do the monitoring.”
The announcement came just before the 55th Hanford worker since spring received a medical evaluation Thursday afternoon for possible exposure to chemical vapors from Hanford waste held in underground tanks. The worker reported symptoms consistent with tank vapor exposure while working in the Hanford AW Tank Farm and was released to return to work later in the day.
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Hanford Challenge supports the state’s notice of a possible lawsuit over tank vapors, after asking the attorney general in April to take action, said Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Seattle-based group that advocates for Hanford workers.
But Hanford Challenge and the other two groups want to make sure their goals are included in any legally binding agreement or legal order, particularly if the improvements they seek differ from those the attorney general wants, Carpenter said.
The three groups want immediate action, including equipping workers with escape respirator packs to put on as soon as vapors are detected and monitoring improvements at stacks where vapors are released into the air.
They want comprehensive medical monitoring for past and present Hanford workers and compensation programs to be changed to help workers get medical treatment for injuries and illnesses caused by exposures to chemical vapors. Some former tank farm workers have developed serious lung and neurological problems.
By Carpenter’s count, there have been 34 reports on Hanford tank vapors over at least two decades, with the most recent — the Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report — released in late October. It was led by the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina and was commissioned by Washington River Protection Solutions, the Hanford tank farm contractor.
The report concluded that short, intense releases of chemical vapors were not being adequately considered and that more could be done to protect workers from them. It made 47 recommendations, and the Hanford contractor started making changes when it saw an early draft of the report.
DOE and contractor leaders seem sincere in their efforts to implement recommendations and better protect workers, Carpenter said. But Hanford has frequent turnover in leadership and the question is whether their replacements will have the same level of commitment.
Typically reports are released, some changes are made and then protection wanes until the next round of publicity and worker complaints, he said.
“We don’t have faith that the latest report will not go the way of other reports ... and be stuck on a shelf,” he said.
Among the workers who gathered at the Local 598 union hall forThursday’s announcement was Ron Johnson Jr., a Hanford pipefitter for nine years and the second generation of his family to build a career at Hanford.
On May 29 he was one of five Hanford workers to develop symptoms consistent with exposure to Hanford tank vapors.
He was working in the SY Tank Farm, where respirators were not required because no release of tank vapors was considered likely.
But Johnson smelled on “onion-like odor” that he had sometimes smelled at the C Tank Farm, where waste is being retrieved from underground tanks, making vapor releases more common, he said.
Two other workers also smelled the odor, but after the odors were reported a decision was made to continue work rather than evacuate the tank farm, Johnson said.
Johnson’s portion of the work was almost complete and he soon left the tank farm, but within about 15 minutes of smelling the odor he was ill — dry heaving, dizzy and tasting metal in his mouth.
He was taken to the Hanford on-site medical provider, where he was given an injection to help with his nausea. He was released to go back to work then, but “didn’t feel comfortable. I was out of it completely,” he said.
He was taken to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, where more tests were run. The next day, concerned about earning a paycheck to support his family of six, he was back at work at Hanford.
He filed a state Department of Labor and Industries claim, concerned about any future lung problems, but the claim was denied because he had no personal injury or occupational disease and the state ruled his symptoms could have been caused by dehydration.
Workers at Hanford can volunteer to wear supplied air respirators, which require workers to carry a bottle of air. But not enough of them have been available and workers felt pressure, including from their fellow workers, not to use them, Carpenter said.
Now Johnson says “I would rather wear a bottle for two hours than 10 years.”
Earlier this month an order was issued requiring workers to temporarily use the respirators for much of the Hanford tank farm work while the effectiveness of half-face respirators is evaluated.
Carpenter guesses that this is the fourth time in the last 20 years that workers have been required to use supplied-air respirators due to tank vapors for periods that have ranged from weeks to more than a year.
But they should be a last resort, he said. They are heavy, reduce visibility and make work more difficult. He recommends other steps be taken, ranging from providing escape respirators to using chemical scrubbers.
Now if more than one worker smells an odor, tank farm policy calls for the area to be evacuated.
“It is 2014 and one of the criteria managers rely on is the worker’s nose,” Nicacio said.
By the time workers detect a smell they may already be exposed to dangerous chemicals, Carpenter said. The chemical mix varies from tank to tank, but some chemicals could be present that can cause harm after a single breath, he said.
Anyone, including the attorney general and the three groups, may file a lawsuit under the Resource and Conservation and Recovery Act if hazardous waste practices endanger public health or the environment after giving 90 days notice.
“We hope it does not go to a lawsuit,” Carpenter said.
The 90 days could be used to negotiate a binding agreement with steps enforceable by the state of Washington to make sure the recommendations in the latest study of tank vapors is implemented, he said.