Washington files lawsuit over Hanford tank vapors

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson holds up 19 reports and studies done on worker exposure to chemical vapors from waste held in Hanford tanks. He announced a new lawsuit at a Seattle press conference Wednesday.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson holds up 19 reports and studies done on worker exposure to chemical vapors from waste held in Hanford tanks. He announced a new lawsuit at a Seattle press conference Wednesday. AP

The state of Washington filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Department of Energy and its Hanford tank farm contractor, seeking better chemical vapor protection for workers.

Local Union 598, which represents Hanford pipefitters and welders, and Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based advocacy group for Hanford workers, also filed a lawsuit in federal court.

DOE has known that workers have been exposed since the late 1980s to chemical vapors from waste in Hanford’s underground tanks, the state said in its lawsuit.

Since then, 19 reports have been written and at least 120 workers have been exposed, but “we are right back where we started in the 1980s,” said Bob Ferguson, the state attorney general. “Enough is enough.”

He was joined at a Seattle news conference Wednesday by representatives of Hanford Challenge, Local 598 and former workers, like Steve Lewis, who said they had been sickened by tank vapors.

Lewis, an electrician who was exposed to vapors in 2002, said he experienced inflamed skin and continual congestion in his throat from chemical burns. Others have had more serious health effects, he said.

More than 1,500 chemicals have been detected in vapors that collect in the head space of underground tanks holding waste from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Vapors can vent into the air from the tanks or escape through related structures, such as valve pits.

Workers have reported short-term symptoms such as nosebleeds, headaches, difficulty breathing, coughing, sore throats and dizziness. But there also are cases of long-term disability, including loss of lung capacity, Ferguson said.

“The risk these workers face is very real and I intend to make the federal government honor its obligation to protect them,” Ferguson said.

Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, said the surviving family of one worker has received compensation for toxic encephalopathy, a neurological disease caused by chemical exposure.

“We’re certainly worried about long-term effects,” Carpenter said.

The most recent review of vapor exposures, commissioned by tank farm contractor Washington River Protection Solutions, hypothesized that worker health effects could be caused by exposure to brief, intermittent and relatively high concentrations of chemicals in vapors.

Learning more, including quantifying the amount of exposure, would require a first-of-a-kind program, said the report, which was conducted under the leadership of the Savannah River National Laboratory.

Washington River Protection Solutions announced a multi-year plan in February 2015 to address the 47 recommendations in the report. The plan calls for expanded data collection, new research studies and new technologies. The data collection will help determine the next steps in the plan.

In the meantime, Washington River Protection Solutions is requiring workers in Hanford tank farms to wear supplied air respirators for most work there.

“Washington River Protection Solutions is committed to providing working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm from industrial, radiological or chemical hazards to its employees,” the contractor said in a statement.

DOE is working closely with its contractor as it implements the first phase of activities in response to the new report, DOE said in a statement.

But the state wants more specifics about how the implementation plan will protect workers, including a schedule.

“I hope we can avoid a lengthy court battle,” Ferguson said, adding that conversations with DOE and reports have not solved the problem.

Carpenter said efforts to protect Hanford employees from vapor exposure have followed a familiar cycle. Workers complain of vapor exposure, the media writes stories, congressional leaders make inquiries and experts prepare reports.

He’s watched the cycle at least four times since an initial report in 1992.

“Hanford officials have told us that they have taken protective measures, but they have not gone far enough,” he said.

No worker using a supplied air respirator has required a medical exam for possible exposure to vapors since respiratory requirements were increased.

But the new requirement does not cover all work. Possible vapor exposures continue to be reported occasionally by workers performing tasks outside the tank farm fences and inside the fences when vapor releases were not expected and supplied air respirators were not required.

Local 598 tells its workers at the tank farms to always wear supplied air respirators, even if not required by Washington River Protection Solutions.

As a result, assignments have been redirected to other workers who do not demand full respiratory protection, said Pete Nicacio, business manager for Local 598.

At least one subcontractor has indicated in response to a request for bids that it would hire only workers who would forgo supplied air respirators, which can reduce worker productivity and increase costs, according to the lawsuit filed by Local 598 and Hanford Challenge.

DOE has said new respiratory requirements have reduced efficiency by 30 to 70 percent and has asked for more time to empty certain leak-prone tanks at Hanford. The state, in separate litigation to force DOE to meet missed deadlines for Hanford cleanup work, has opposed extending the deadline.

Neither lawsuit about tank vapors asks the federal court to issue fines or other penalties.

The state is asking the court to take all actions needed to eliminate danger from tank vapors, which may include independent oversight, and a stop to activities that endanger people or the environment.

That could be accomplished through expanding requirements for supplied air respirators, more monitoring and warnings for chemical vapors and improved controls to keep chemical vapors from entering the environment.

Hanford Challenge and Local 598 also are asking for timely implementation of recommendations in the latest report, ongoing comprehensive medical monitoring of past and present Hanford workers and communication of complete information to workers and the public about vapor exposure incidents.

Plaintiffs also are asking for legal costs and expenses to be paid.

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

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