DOE plans Richland meetings on beryllium rule changes

The Department of Energy is proposing new rules to protect Hanford and other workers from beryllium, which can cause lung disease.
The Department of Energy is proposing new rules to protect Hanford and other workers from beryllium, which can cause lung disease. Associated Press file

The federal government is considering tightening regulations for beryllium at Department of Energy sites to require that action be taken to protect workers when beryllium is present at levels lower than the current action level.

However, Mark Fisher, chairman of the Beryllium Awareness Group, a Hanford advisory group, is concerned that some of the proposed new regulations could leave Hanford workers with less protection.

“I don’t want any more affected workers,” he said.

Meetings will be held at the HAMMER training center near Richland June 28-30 with sessions from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. each day. HAMMER is at 2890 Horn Rapids Road.

Rather than presenting a formal program, federal officials are expected to listen to public comments and possibly ask questions.

DOE said in a notice filed in the Federal Register that proposed amendments would improve and strengthen current protections for employees of DOE and its contractors. They would include not only Hanford employees, but also those at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.

The federal regulations have not been updated since 1999, even though more is known about the effects of beryllium exposure 17 years later.

In contrast, Hanford rules to protect workers from beryllium were revised as recently as 2014.

34 Hanford employees diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease as of 2013

The metal beryllium was included in an alloy that was machined until 1986 as part of producing caps for the uranium fuel irradiated at Hanford for weapons plutonium production. Workers may have been exposed during the Cold War or more recently from beryllium that remains in dust, including in ventilation systems in older building.

Breathing in fine particles of the metal can cause chronic beryllium disease for people with an allergy-like sensitivity to the metal. The lung disease can be debilitating and fatal.

At Hanford, 34 employees have been diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease through 2013, according to information published with the proposed new regulations. In addition, 91 workers have been diagnosed as sensitized to beryllium, meaning they are genetically sensitive to beryllium, have been exposed to beryllium and are at risk of developing chronic beryllium disease.

The proposed new regulations would make numerous changes, including reducing the amount of beryllium that can be present before action is taken from 0.2 micrograms per cubic meeter to 0.05 micrograms per cubic meter. Now Hanford’s beryllium disease prevention program sets an action level of 0.1 micrograms per cubic meter, which is half of the current federal limit but double the proposed new limit.

But Fisher said that Hanford also uses a system in which any beryllium present results in an area being posted as a “beryllium controlled area.”

Beryllium is a silver-gray metallic element that is exceptionally light and stiff.

Workers entering the area must be qualified for work in the area, both through training and a medical test, he said.

He is concerned that the new regulation might result in workers only being protected if beryllium is detected that exceeds the new limit.

The new regulations seem more practical for places where work is currently being done with beryllium, rather than places like Hanford that have uncertainty about where contamination from past work remains.

Written comments may be turned in at the meeting or emailed to Rulemaking.850@hq.doe.gov with “AU-RM-11-CBDPP” in the subject line. Comments also may be mailed to Jacqueline D. Rogers; Department of Energy; Office of Environment; Health, Safety and Security; Mailstop AU-11; Docket Number AU-RM-11-CBDPP; 1000 Independence Ave. S.W.; Washington, D.C., 20585.

Comments are due Sept. 6. More information is published in the Federal Register at 1.usa.gov/1WDnD0D.

Meetings also are being held in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Las Vegas, Nev.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews