Our Voice: ‘Today’ show report not the whole story

Living near a nuclear reservation means having to put up with glow-in-the-dark jokes and reassuring outsiders our community is safe.

We recognize that, and we do our best to let people know the Tri-Cities is more than a Hanford suburb.

But that task just got tougher thanks to a highly inflammatory story promoted on the Today show last week.

To millions of Americans who saw the Today show report, we are living next to an “underground Chernobyl waiting to happen.”

At least, that’s what the unnamed “nuclear experts” said.

The story is titled “Is this America’s Chernobyl? Welcome to ‘the most toxic place in America,’ ” and focuses on workers who say they were exposed to chemical vapors while working at Hanford.

While we have grown accustomed to defending ourselves against overblown claims of toxicity in our region, it was disheartening to see such a high-profile morning show resort to using such exaggeration.

We have reported for years on Hanford employee health issues, including a series of articles on compensation for ill nuclear workers. We do not dismiss anyone’s pain and suffering.

But the notion that nothing has been done to better protect workers at the Hanford tank farms since 20 years ago — when workers might breathe in chemical vapors for days on end rather than immediately evacuate areas where vapors are suspected — is completely false.

Unfortunately, the Today show report zeroed in on the dangers of toxic waste without any real discussion of what should be done about it.

Mostly, the report was a presentation of heart-breaking accounts and angry finger-pointing.

Yes, the story included studies and several interviews, including some questions for the Department of Energy.

But many of those documents were old (one that was cited was from 2009) and the interviews primarily reinforced how toxic the site is.

Hanford is a complex beast, and we would have liked to have seen a report with a more balanced perspective.

The Today show story captured the distress of some workers who blame their illnesses from their jobs at Hanford. It also highlighted the frustration of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who filed a lawsuit to ensure better worker protection against chemical vapors.

When Ferguson announced last year that the state would sue DOE and the tank farm contractor, he said “we are right back where we started in the 1980s” — and he emphasized that sentiment for the Today show story.

But currently, workers are required to wear supplied air respirators for any work within the Hanford tank farms until a more permanent solution is found.

In addition, DOE has recently spent $50 million toward chemical vapor safety improvements, including the development of cutting edge vapor monitoring and detection.

Last month, in fact, a federal judge denied the state’s request for increased protections for Hanford workers while the lawsuit is pending, saying the workers already are protected because they have to wear the air respirators.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also just released a review that confirmed that out of thousands of air samples collected, few, if any, of the samples exceeded occupational limits for key chemicals in vapors.

It would have been helpful if the Today show story had included some of these findings in its report, instead of steering its viewers in only one direction.

The NIOSH review found there is much distrust between labor and management — primarily that Hanford workers believe management is skeptical of some worker claims that vapors make them sick.

That is a problem that needs to improve.

DOE and its tank farm contractor need to do a better job of addressing employee concerns seriously and promptly. Mediation may be required to find areas that managers and workers can agree upon.

Otherwise, stories like the Today show’s Hanford report will be the only side most people ever hear — and that is not the whole story.