Sen. Ron Wyden holds joint press conference about worker exposures to tank vapors at Hanford
About 65 construction workers have been sent back to their union halls as some work has been cut back at the Hanford tank farms, a fallout of a new policy to protect workers from chemical vapors.
Washington River Protection Solutions is requiring workers to wear supplied air respirators inside all Hanford tank farms in response to a stop-work order issued by the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council.
HAMTC, an umbrella group of 15 non-construction unions doing Hanford work, ordered on July 11 a halt to all work within the tank farms unless workers are wearing supplied air respirators.
“With a limited number of air bottles and masks, and a limit to our ability to clean and refill the equipment in a timely manner, work is being impacted,” the tank farm contractor said in a statement.
Tasks have been prioritized, with respiratory equipment assigned to workers doing the highest priority tasks until Washington River Protection Solutions can have more supplied air respirators available. An estimate of when that might be was not immediately available.
More than 50 workers have received medical checks for possible exposure to chemical vapors in recent months. All were cleared to return to work. But Hanford workers are concerned that breathing in chemicals associated with chemicals from the waste held in tanks could cause serious lung and neurological illnesses.
The work currently assigned the highest priority at the tank farms is in the AY, C and AP Tank Farms.
Workers are installing equipment inside the AY-102 Tank, to continue retrieving waste. It is the oldest of Hanford’s 28 double-shell tanks and has waste leaking between its shells, although no waste is believed to have escaped the tank into the ground.
WRPS has notified subcontractors so they can manage their work force in accordance with scheduled work.
Washington River Protection Solutions statement
DOE and its contractor agreed to have enough waste emptied to determine the cause of the leak in March 2017. The equipment used to empty much of the waste in the tank this spring is being replaced with enhanced reach sluicers that fold out within the tank to get closer to the remaining waste, including waste at the sides of the 1 million-gallon tank.
At the C Tank Farm, waste is being emptied from one of two remaining single-shell tanks there that must be emptied to meet requirements of a recently revised court-enforced consent decree. Waste from leak-prone single-shell tanks is being emptied into double-shell tanks that remain in service until the waste can be treated for disposal.
Work is being done with exhausters at the AP Tank Farm to meet a recommendation by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board on tank waste flammable gas.
The amount of work at the A and AX Tank Farms is being reduced, but not stopped entirely, because of the limited number of supplied air respirators available.
Infrastructure is being installed there to prepare to empty their single-shell waste tanks as work wraps up at the C Tank Farm.
Crews that have been sent home were assigned to subcontractors doing construction work at the A and AX Tank Farms. They were building trades workers rather than HAMTC workers.
“WRPS has notified subcontractors so they can manage their work force in accordance with scheduled work,” according to the statement from the tank farm contractor.
About 800 union workers continue to do work at the tank farms, with another 2,000 nonunion workers employed by Washington River Protection Solutions and its subcontractors also continuing work.
Before the stop-work order related to supplied air respirators was issued, the tank farm contractor was allowing some work to be done in double-shell tank farms, which are equipped with exhausters, if waste was not disturbed. Disturbing waste increases the risk that chemical vapors could be released.
The tank farm contractor is complying with a union demand that lighter, 30-minute bottles be used with supplied air respirators.
Washington River Protection Solutions is buying more respirator masks and also air bottles. HAMTC demanded that 60-minute bottles be removed from service and replaced with lighter 30-minute bottles. The tank farm contractor is complying with that demand but needs more of the lighter bottles.
However, the work that can be done is limited by how the equipment must be monitored.
Each time the supplied air respirators are used, they must be checked for radioactive contamination. Once cleared, they are sent by truck to the Hanford Fire Department.
There a subcontractor inspects them for damage, sanitizes them and refills the bottles using an air compressor. Then the equipment is trucked back to a central Hanford building for workers to check out.
Procedures and work plans also have to be updated for the supplied air respirators, and workers need to be certified to use them. Certification requires workers to receive a medical evaluation, a mask fitting and training.
No one could be reached Monday at the Central Washington Building Trades Council about the issue.