The Department of Energy needs to find better methods of detecting chemical vapors at the Hanford tank farms and to learn more about what is in the vapors, according to state health officials.
The state Department of Health weighed in on worker vapor protection in a recent letter to DOE.
The department is waiting for Hanford officials to release a plan for implementing 47 proposed recommendations in a new independent review of chemical vapor issues, led by the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina.
The implementation plan, initially scheduled to be released in mid-December, is expected to be made public shortly.
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“The conclusions contained within the report are based on sound scientific assessments and (it) contains recommendations that can improve the safety and health of the workers at the tank farm facilities,” David Jansen, director of the Department of Health Office of Radiation Protection, wrote in the letter to DOE.
“While the report is good, we will continue to have serious concerns for worker safety until worker exposures are eliminated or properly controlled using appropriate industrial hygiene and safety protocols,” he said.
Since March, 56 workers have received medical evaluations for possible vapor exposure. Workers have reported smelling vapors for at least 20 years and although the issue has not been eliminated, improvements have been made in the past decade to better protect them.
The tank farms are evacuated if workers smell a suspicious odor consistent with waste held in Hanford’s underground tanks from the past production of weapons plutonium.
“The continued reliance on sensory warning properties instead of exposure monitoring is a problem,” Jansen said.
Many chemicals can only be detected with appropriate air monitoring, according to the state Department of Health.
The frequency of reports of possible exposure shows that engineering methods used to control vapors now are not adequate, Jansen said. Some of the tanks are passively vented into the air.
The Department of Health also is calling for better chemical characterization of the tanks’ contents. Past reviews have concluded more than 1,000 chemicals may be present in the head space of the tanks.
Inadequate information about the chemicals creates difficulty in evaluating whether workers have been exposed to chemicals at levels that could cause health effects, evaluating strategies for sampling and worker exposure monitoring, and evaluating transitory chemical reactions, the letter said.
The Department of Health is offering its assistance, including applying its expertise in radioactive air emissions systems to chemical release concerns, Jansen said.
“We understand that updated engineering controls and protective equipment must be provided to support tank maintenance and clean-up activities,” he said. “Ultimately, the best worker protection will be when these aging tanks are permanently closed and workers no longer have to maintain them.”
The state expects the federal government to expedite proper worker protection and complete tank cleanup, he said.
“We are taking this very seriously,” said JD Dowell, deputy manager of the DOE Office of River Protection, at a meeting of the Hanford Advisory Board last week.
Workers have been required, at least temporarily, to wear supplied air respirators for most work in the Hanford tank farms.
The steps being taken are increasing the time needed to conduct work and the cost of work, but “it’s the right thing to do,” Dowell said.
After the Savannah River report was released, Hanford officials immediately implemented 27 of the 47 major recommendations, as work was done to develop a comprehensive implementation plan, he said.
Additional industrial hygiene staff has been hired, and new personal monitoring and alarm systems are being evaluated and purchased, he said. Vapors in the head space of Hanford’s waste tanks are being sampled and evaluated.
New training programs are being developed and medical protocols updated, he said.