Hanford tank farm lawsuit paints inaccurate picture

When Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson recently announced that the state is suing the Department of Energy and its Hanford tank farm contractor in order to ensure better worker protection against toxic vapors, he gave the impression that no safety improvements have been made over the past couple of decades.

That impression is inaccurate and unfair.

It’s true there are former workers who trace their illnesses, some quite severe, to their exposure to chemical vapors at the Hanford tank farm.

And we don’t dismiss anyone’s pain or suffering. DOE should have done more to safeguard tank farm employees from exposure to chemical vapors many years ago.

But nothing — not even a lawsuit — can change what happened in the past.

DOE and its Hanford contractors can only affect what happens now.

Contrary to Ferguson’s admonishment that “we are right back where we started in the 1980s,” Washington River Protection Solutions, the contractor in charge of the tank farm, has made an effort to improve worker safety.

It commissioned an independent review by the Savannah River National Laboratory so it could better identify problems in its operations and find possible solutions. The Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report was released last October and contained 47 specific recommendations to reduce vapor exposure to workers.

In response, Washington River Protection Solutions announced in February it would begin implementing a plan to adopt those recommendations, which includes expanded data collection, new research studies and new technologies.

In the meantime, workers at the Hanford tank farm are required to wear supplied air respirators for most of their work. So far, no worker using a supplied air respirator has required a medical exam for possible exposure to vapors.

That’s a sign of improvement, but the state says it wants more specifics about how the implementation plan will protect workers and is forcing the issue with the lawsuit.

It’s odd the state has decided to sue now, just as Washington River Protection Solutions is starting to implement changes to better protect its workers. Why file a lawsuit before knowing if this latest effort to improve worker safety will fail? The timing makes no sense.

It also is ironic that about the same time Ferguson reproached Washington River Protection Solutions, the contractor was chosen by the Voluntary Protection Program Participants’ Association for its Innovation Award for worker safety.

The Hanford tank farm contractor developed a tool used to survey long pieces of equipment so workers can record radioactive levels at a safe distance. Washington River Protection Solutions also was recognized for its rate of recordable injuries, which are 75 percent lower than the industry average.

That does not sound like a company that completely ignores worker safety. Ferguson’s assertion that no improvements have been made is flat out wrong.