Hanford

DOE asks judge to dismiss state’s Hanford chemical vapor lawsuit

Workers at the Hanford tank farms currently are using supplied air respirators for all work within the farms.
Workers at the Hanford tank farms currently are using supplied air respirators for all work within the farms. Courtesy DOE

The Department of Energy is asking that a federal judge dismiss the state of Washington’s lawsuit seeking increased protection from chemical vapors for Hanford workers.

The state is overstepping its authority and has no legal standing to bring the case against the federal government, the Department of Justice argued on behalf of DOE in a motion filed this week in federal court.

“We will, of course, strenuously oppose this motion, and we expect to prevail,” Bob Ferguson, Washington state attorney general, said in a statement.

The filing does not seek to dismiss a similar lawsuit filed by Hanford Challenge and union Local 598 against DOE and its tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions. The cases have been consolidated.

During spring and summer, about 57 Hanford workers have received medical evaluations for possible exposure to chemical vapors. They are concerned that exposure to the chemicals could cause serious lung and neurological illnesses.

The very small subset of the state’s population working at Hanford may themselves file suit if they believe they have a basis to do so.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice legal filing says the state has no standing in the case under two possible legal avenues.

First, the state faces no direct harm from chemical vapors associated with waste in underground tanks at the Hanford nuclear reservation, such as environmental harm to land or water, according to the Department of Justice.

Second, the state cannot sue the federal government to protect the welfare of its residents because the federal government has a superior claim to represent the general rights and welfare of its citizens, the Department of Justice said.

In addition, other courts have found that the state may not bring a lawsuit to vindicate the interest of a narrow subset of its citizens, the Department of Justice said.

“The very small subset of the state’s population working at Hanford may themselves file suit if they believe they have a basis to do so,” the Department of Justice said. “Indeed, Hanford Challenge and the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union 598 have filed suit.”

I suggest the federal government focus on protecting workers rather than continuing to evade accountability.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson

The federal government is questioning the state’s ability to bring a lawsuit nearly a year after it was filed, Ferguson pointed out.

“I suggest the federal government focus on protecting workers rather than continuing to evade accountability,” he said.

At the start of the month, U.S. Judge Thomas Rice ordered DOE and its tank farm contractor to take steps to protect workers until he rules on immediate protections requested by plaintiffs in a motion for preliminary injunction filed in July. DOE had offered to take the steps in exchange for more time to prepare arguments and retain expert witnesses in response to the preliminary injunction motion.

Steps include continuing to use supplied air respirators within all Hanford tank farms, a step it took in response to demands made in June by the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, an organization of Hanford unions.

DOE also is not doing any work in the tank farms that disturbs waste, unless needed for safety reasons. Disturbing waste increases the possibility that chemical vapors could be released.

The judge has set a hearing on the motion for preliminary injunction for Oct. 12 in Spokane. A non-jury trial is scheduled for September 2017.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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