State asks judge for immediate protection at Hanford

Tank farm workers are shown using supplied air respirators to protect against chemical vapors on a night shift.
Tank farm workers are shown using supplied air respirators to protect against chemical vapors on a night shift. Courtesy DOE

Washington state’s attorney general wants a federal judge to immediately protect Hanford workers from chemical vapors at the nuclear reservation’s tank farms.

The state alleges that safety measures at the tank farms have been reduced since it and others sued in September to better protect workers.

A request for a preliminary injunction was filed by the state on Thursday. It’s part of the federal court lawsuit that Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed against the Department of Energy and its tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions.

Seattle-based Hanford Challenge and Union Local 598 followed with a similar request for preliminary injunction.

The matter is not scheduled to go to trial until May 2017, and Ferguson and other plaintiffs in the consolidated lawsuits want a judge to step in sooner to ensure worker protection until the case is heard.

“We are acting today to protect the Hanford work force and end exposure to toxic chemical vapors at Hanford,” Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, said in a statement. “Too many workers have already gotten sick and even disabled by brain and lung diseases.”

The state is asking that a judge order the mandatory use of supplied air respirators at all time for workers within the fence of Hanford tank farms, where waste is stored in underground tanks from the past production of weapons plutonium. The chemical vapors are associated with the waste in the tanks.

I’ve been asking for months: How many sick Washington workers will it take before the federal government fixes this problem?

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson

The Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, a coalition of 15 Hanford unions, made the same demand in June and then called a halt to work this month unless the demand was met. Washington River Protection Solutions has said it is now mandating supplied air respirators for any work done inside the tank farms.

The federal court filing also asks the judge to order mandatory use of the supplied air respirators in the area at least 200 feet outside the fence of tank farms if work that disturbs waste is being done within a farm.

It also would require barricading of roads and access points in the expanded area, called the vapor control zone.

The state also wants the judge to require immediate installation of improved monitoring and alarm equipment when waste is disturbed, which can cause the release of chemical vapors. The improved equipment would warn workers when vapors are emitted.

“I’ve been asking for months: How many sick Washington workers will it take before the federal government fixes this problem?” Ferguson said in a statement.

From April through June more than 50 Hanford employees were given medical evaluations for possible exposure to chemical vapors. Those with symptoms had nosebleeds, chest and lung pain, headaches, coughing, sore throats, irritated eyes and difficulty breathing, according to the lawsuit.

Worker descriptions of exposures over more than a decade are remarkably similar, according to court documents. Workers typically report a musty or metallic odor, followed by symptoms.

Documents filed by Hanford Challenge and Local 598 detailed some of the illnesses workers have experienced over the last 20 years after working in or near the tank farms.

A millwright working in the tank farms in May smelled a strong chemical odor, but had no immediate symptoms, according to plaintiffs’ court documents. The next morning he struggled to breathe and his lungs felt like they were “being ripped out with hooks.”

A typical event involves the worker smelling a ‘musty’ or ‘metallic’ odor, followed by difficulty breathing, headache, nosebleed or other symptoms.

State motion for preliminary injunction

He was diagnosed with a major lung inflammation and doctors said symptoms were caused by on-the-job exposure to chemicals, according to court documents.

In another case, an instrument technician who is also a member of Hanford Challege reported a severe nosebleed 20 minutes after a Hanford co-worker reported an odor in August 2015. He began to have trouble breathing as he drove home from work and the next day was admitted to the hospital with pneumonitis of the lungs, said court documents.

He is unable to work and has both respiratory tract and neurological issues, according to court documents.

Tim Takaro, a health science professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, said in court documents that chemical exposure within limits deemed safe by occupational standards may be hazardous for workers with previous respiratory injuries or who have age-related or genetic susceptibility to chemical exposure.

The state’s court documents say many of the exposures happened after work began this spring to empty a double-shell tank with an interior leak and transfer its contents to another tank, creating a high potential for vapor exposures in and around the transfer site.

As work progressed, Hanford officials repeatedly reduced the area in which workers were required to wear supplied air respirators based on sampling data, according to the state.

Two weeks later more than 40 workers received medical checks for possible chemical vapor exposure over a five-day period, the state said. Many of the exposures were outside tank farm fences, with some up to 200 feet away from the farms.

We believe the claims are not reflective of the safe and progressive work our team is accomplishing in the tank farms’ challenging environment.

Mark Lindholm, WRPS president

Sampling methods being used are unsound, the state said.

Washington River Protection Solutions has been working to implement recommendations made in an independent review, including testing and verifying new monitoring and detection technology.

Experts had envisioned that may of the recommendations would be addressed in a matter of weeks or months, according to the state.

Instead, Washington River Protection Solutions divided implementation into a data gathering and testing phase and a second implementation phase, the state said. The company has fallen behind on implementation of the plan and postponed some work planned for the first phase to the second phase, it said.

The company had little to say on the on-going legal action.

Its president, Mark Lindholm, sent a message to employees saying he was disappointed in the attorney general’s actions.

“We believe the claims are not reflective of the safe and progressive work our team is accomplishing in the tank farms’ challenging environment,” he said.

The contractor is reviewing the new court documents and will work with the Department of Energy on a path forward, he said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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