By the Washington State Office of the Attorney General
After 20 years and many reports and studies, federal government still not adequately protecting Hanford workers
SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson is sending the U.S. Dept. of Energy, and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), a Notice of Endangerment and Intent to Sue. Ferguson seeks to protect workers at the federal Hanford Nuclear Reservation from hazardous chemical vapors that continue to jeopardize worker health and safety.
On Oct. 30, 2014, an independent panel of experts issued the federally-funded Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report which determined that “ongoing emission of tank vapors, which contain a mixture of toxic chemicals, is inconsistent with the provisions of a safe and healthful workplace free from recognized hazards.” They further found that the data “strongly suggests a causal link between chemical vapor release and subsequent adverse health effects experienced by tank farm workers.”
The report was the latest in a series of reports assessing the problem of tank workers falling sick after exposure to chemical vapors from on-site waste holding tanks. Dating back to at least 1987, workers exposed to vapors have experienced nosebleeds, headaches, watery eyes, burning skin, contact dermatitis, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, coughing, sore throats, expectorating, dizziness and nausea. Several of these workers have long-term disabilities, including permanent loss of lung capacity.
Despite the 20 years of study and multiple reports, there is no lasting solution and workers continue to get sick.
“Hanford workers face a very real and immediate health risk,” said Ferguson. “The federal government has a responsibility to keep these Washington workers safe and I intend to hold them accountable.”
“The report from this independent panel clearly signals a need for further action to protect workers at the Hanford tank farms,” said Governor Jay Inslee. “I have spoken with U.S. Energy Secretary Moniz who has assured me that the federal government’s response to this situation will be vigorous and that steps have already been taken to better protect workers.”
The federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) allows persons, including the attorney general, to bring actions against a party whose hazardous waste practices “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the public’s health or the environment.” RCRA first requires a notice of intent to sue be sent to the party. A lawsuit can be filed 90 days after the notice of intent to sue. The AGO’s primary focus is to secure lasting abatement of the dangers posed by the Hanford vapors through an effective, legally enforceable agreement or order with the federal government.
The Hanford site in eastern Washington is a nuclear reservation operated by the U.S. federal government. Currently, Hanford houses roughly 56 million gallons of nuclear waste in 177 underground tanks — enough to fill roughly 88 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Most of these tanks are of single-shell construction, many of which have leaked.
A federal court consent decree and the Hanford Tri-Party Agreement require Energy to retrieve and treat Hanford’s tank waste and safely close Hanford’s unfit-for-use single-shell tanks. Workers are primarily exposed to hazardous Hanford tank vapors while working around these single-shell tanks, especially during retrieval operations. Energy and its contractors have a 20-year history of studying the tank vapors problem, but problems persist and workers continue to experience adverse health impacts.
On June 20, 2014, in response to increasing reports of workers falling ill after vapor exposure, Governor Inslee and Ferguson wrote to the Secretary of Energy urging an independent assessment of the safety of workers who may be exposed to chemical vapors or fumes emitted from tanks at Hanford.
Energy, through the Savannah River National Laboratory, commissioned an independent expert panel to prepare such an assessment. This resulted in the Oct. 30, 2014 Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report.