SPOKANE, Wash. (CN) – Washington state sued the Department of Energy and its prime contractor for exposing workers to radioactive fumes during the enormous cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
The federal lawsuit claims the Department of Energy and Washington River Protection Solutions violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by exposing workers to plutonium and 1,500 other volatile chemicals.
The 56-square-mile site has 177 underground tanks that still contain 56 million gallons of “mixed high-level radioactive and hazardous waste,” according to the complaint. The tanks range in size from 55,000 gallons to 1.1 million gallons.
Of those 177 tanks, 149 are single-shell, which the Department of Energy itself calls “unfit for use,” under state and federal standards. Due to the mixed chemicals in the tanks, “the waste undergoes continuous chemical reactions” which produce gases that build up in the tanks’ headspaces.
“Over 1,500 different volatile chemicals have been reported in the headspaces of tanks. These chemicals include, but are not limited to, hydrogen, ammonia, mercury, N-nitrosodimethylamine, 2-nitrosamines, and volatile organic compounds (e.g., benzene, nitrous oxide, butanol, acetone, hexane, and xylene),” the complaint states.
“For years, Washington workers have been exposed to noxious fumes and chemical vapors as they clean up the federal government’s nuclear site at Hanford,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement announcing the Sept. 2 lawsuit.
“Enough is enough. The health risks are real, and the state is taking action today to ensure the federal government protects these workers now and in the future.”
Ferguson claims the Department of Energy has known since the late 1980s that workers were being exposed to toxic vapors.
A Department of Energy investigation in 1992 “pointed out a number of failures and shortcomings at the tank farms, noting that there had not been a properly developed industrial hygiene program and that a technically adequate characterization of tank emissions had not been completed,” the complaint states.
Ferguson says the Energy Department never fixed those problems.
In 2004, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (NIOSH) found that Hanford workers were exposed to toxic vapors, suffered acute and chronic health effects, were not properly monitored and were not routinely provided with protective equipment, among other things.
“More than a decade after the issuance of the NIOSH report, tank vapor exposure events continue to endanger workers in the tank farm areas. As noted above, there were more than 50 reported worker vapor exposure incidents between January 2014 and April 2015, demonstrating that the problem of worker safety in the tank farm areas has not been solved,” according to the complaint.
Washington River Protection Solutions prepared its own report in 2014 that found “evidence strongly suggests the existence of a causal link between vapor releases from Hanford waste tanks and adverse health effects to workers,” the state says.
The report faulted Hanford’s industrial hygiene program for failing to detect releases of concentrated chemicals.
“The ongoing tank vapor releases do not allow for the provision of a safe and healthful workplace free from recognized hazards. Leadership at the Department of Energy will need to be fully committed to address the vapor exposure issues,” the report stated.
Washington River Protection Solutions used the report to make safety recommendations, including sampling tank contents, revising an exposure assessment program and using real-time vapor detection devises and personal protection equipment.
The Attorney General’s Office said that 2014 report was “the latest in a series of studies” over 20 years assessing the problem of Hanford workers’ exposure to toxic waste.
“Despite 20 years of study and multiple reports, the federal government has not implemented a lasting solution and workers continue to get sick. Since March 2014, at least 50 workers have sought medical attention for exposure to chemical vapors at the site. In June 2015, another 13 workers were exposed to vapors. Just weeks ago, on Aug. 14, an instrument technician at a double-shell tank farm was exposed to apparent vapors. He was not wearing respiratory protection because none has been required in the double-shell tank farms,” Ferguson said in his statement Tuesday.
Hanford, on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington, produced plutonium for nuclear weapons from 1943 to 1987. It was designated a Superfund site for cleanup in 1988.
Washington wants the defendants ordered to develop and carry out “a comprehensive and enforceable program, with provisions for independent oversight and accountability, that provides for engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment sufficient to protect workers and other potentially exposed individuals.”
The Department of Energy declined to comment, other than saying it is “committed to protecting workers, members of the public, and the environment.”
Washington River Protection Solutions said in a statement it has already implemented some safety recommendations from the 2014 report, including increasing respiratory protections.
“WRPS has made substantial improvements in the Hanford tank farms’ chemical vapor management program since being contracted to operate the tank farms. WRPS is committed to continuously improve worker safety and health,” it said.
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