Non-jury trial date set for Hanford chemical vapor lawsuit

A warning sign hangs outside one of the Hanford tank farms.
A warning sign hangs outside one of the Hanford tank farms. Associated Press

A non-jury trial seeking better protection of Hanford workers from chemical vapors was set for May 22, 2017, at a Richland federal courtroom during a hearing Wednesday.

Federal Judge Thomas Rice ruled two cases filed against the Department of Energy and its tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, would be combined for the trial.

One case was filed by the state of Washington and the other was filed by Seattle-based Hanford Challenge and Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union 598.

The lawsuits were filed in September. The state is asking the court to take all actions — including independent oversight and a stop to hazardous activities — needed to eliminate danger from vapors that vent from underground waste tanks.

Hanford Challenge and Local 598 are asking for timely implementation of recommendations in a new report commissioned by the tank farm contractor, medical monitoring of past and present workers, and communication of complete information to workers and the public about vapor exposure incidents.

10-15 days anticipated length of trial

The plaintiffs and defendants held several teleconferences earlier this month, according to a joint report. They estimate a trial would last 10 to 15 days. They may engage in settlement negotiations, but the likelihood for settlement is unclear.

The plaintiffs requested a trial no later than mid-March 2017 because of the risk that more workers could be exposed. The defendants asked for a trial date in June 2017 in part to allow more time to attempt a settlement.

Hanford workers continue to be exposed to chemical vapors from tank waste and previous exposure has caused not only symptoms such as nosebleeds and difficulty breathing, but long-term disability, including loss of lung capacity and brain damage, plaintiffs say.

DOE has said in court documents that the case should be dismissed because it has not been brought before a court with jurisdiction over the matter. It also is asking that the claim by Hanford Challenge and Local 598 be dismissed because the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act bars citizen lawsuits when a state or federal agency is prosecuting a civil action.

Tank farm workers now wearing supplied air respirators for most work.

Washington River Protection Solutions has said in court documents that plaintiffs have not met the standard of law for endangerment to health and they cannot show the need for the lawsuit in light of the current regulatory system. It has complied with all local, state and federal laws and regulations, it said.

It also claims that the case cannot be prosecuted under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act because vapors are not a waste as defined by the law.

Washington River Protection Solutions announced a multi-year plan about six months before the lawsuit was filed to address 47 recommendations in a new review of vapor exposures that it had conducted under the leadership of the Savannah River National Laboratory. The plan calls for expanded data collection, new research studies and new technologies.

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

The lawsuits were prompted after about 50 workers received medical exams for possible exposure to the vapors over about 18 months.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews