Hanford: Is Fast Cleanup Endangering Workers?

A new report released by the Government Accountability Project documents dozens of recent exposures to toxic chemical vapors requiring medical attention, and what the study authors feel is the failure of the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) and contractors to protect worker health and safety at the Hanford nuclear waste tank farm in Richland, Wash.

According to "Knowing Endangerment: Worker Exposure to Toxic Vapors at the Hanford Tank Farms," worker exposures to chemical vapors from Hanford's high level waste tanks have skyrocketed, with 45 documented exposure events involving over 67 tank farm workers requiring medical attention between January 2002 and August 2003. In 1997, Battelle's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) stated in a draft report that the risk of contracting cancer from even a single exposure to these chemical vapors could be as high as 1.6 in 10.

Hanford, part of the Manhattan Project, made plutonium for nuclear weapons. It has been operated under contract by private companies over the years. Fifty-four million gallons of nuclear and chemical waste is stored at Hanford in 177 underground tanks. The tanks are arranged into eighteen farms, known as "tank farms,"and managed primarily by DOE cleanup contractor CH2M-Hill Hanford. The high level waste in the tanks forms noxious vapors, which must vent to the atmosphere in order to prevent pressure buildup and possible explosion or tank rupture.

DOE officials dispute that the accelerated cleanup schedule has anything to do with increased worker claims of exposure. They say new regulations account for the higher number of exposures requiring medical attention.

"Before, when people smelled vapors, unless there were symptoms, they were not taken to a hospital," Energy Department spokesman Robert Barr told the Associated Press. "Now, workers can see a doctor for peace of mind even if they have no symptoms."

An official for CH2M-Hill Hanford Group said none of the exposures required the workers to be hospitalized.

DOE officials announced recently that CH2M-Hill had removed most of the liquid radioactive waste stored in 29 underground tanks. Only six tanks remain, and they will be emptied by April 2004, said Roy Schepens, manager of the DOE's Office of River Protection in Richland, Wash. The radioactive liquid was pumped out of single-walled tanks and transferred into double-walled tanks.

The Government Accountability Project claims that between 1987 and 1992, it took only 16 vapor releases requiring medical attention to trigger large scale investigations by the DOE, the then tank farm contractor Westinghouse, the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, the DOE's Office of Inspector General, and, upon invitation, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The investigations resulted in widespread changes onsite.

Now, over a decade later, the rate of worker exposure to chemical vapors has increased 750 percent, and over 1200 chemicals have been documented in the vapors contained in the tank headspaces.

The report claims workers exposed to the tank vapors have health effects ranging from nosebleeds, persistent headaches, tearing eyes, burning skin and lungs, constant productive coughs, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea and increased heart rates. Despite these conditions, says the Government Accountability Project, CH2M Hill fails to require basic respirators in the tank farms, denies worker requests to use supplied air, and is planning to reduce the level of personal protective equipment used by tank farm workers.

"When the tanks off-gassed, or burped, the vapor plumes came out and nobody was wearing a mask," said Lloyd Stone, an electrician who worked in the Hanford Tank Farms. "In 2002, I was exposed to these chemical vapors five times in two months, and suffered nosebleeds, headaches and contact dermatitis. With each one of these exposures, I was told that the monitoring equipment read non-detectable, yet my skin was bright red. When I asked for additional respiratory protection, CH2M Hill's answer was 'No, not until our monitoring equipment shows it is necessary.'"

Toxicologist Timothy Jarvis, Ph.D., REA, noted, "Every time Hanford workers enter the tank farms with inadequate respiratory protection, they risk health-threatening exposures to toxic vapors." Like every other employer in the United States, "it is incumbent upon CH2M Hill and the Department of Energy to protect their workers from toxic chemical vapors," he added.

According to the GAP report, physicians at the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation (HEHF) consistently have attributed symptoms of chemical vapor exposure to seasonal allergies or as being psychological, have pressured workers to accept medical restrictions designed by CH2M Hill, and have prohibited family, friends and union stewards from accompanying workers in medical examinations.

"The Department of Energy's failure to exercise contractor oversight at the Hanford Tank Farms is a damning indictment of its willingness to sacrifice the health and safety of workers in exchange for cheap operating costs and meeting production goals," said Tom Carpenter of GAP's Nuclear Oversight Campaign.

Despite Carpenter's claims to the contrary, the Energy Department has been taking a closer look an Hanford. On Sept. 12, DOE announced it had issued a proposed civil penalty of $82,500 to CH2M-Hill Hanford for violations of nuclear safety requirements. The violations did not result in actual harm to workers or the environment, according to DOE.

There were three areas of violation work processes, quality improvement and information requirements. DOE investigators found that contractors at the tank farms inadvertently shut off the leak detector in Hanford's AN tank farm and then failed to accurately indicate their status, overfilled dilution tanks causing spills of water onto contaminated soil and did not report two of the spills, and failed to control the movement of vehicles and equipment onto and around the underground tanks.

Each of the three areas of the violation carries a proposed civil penalty of $27,500 for a total proposed penalty of $82,500. In its letter of proposed violation and civil penalty, the Energy Department notes that recent corrective actions have been both aggressive and comprehensive and resulted in a mitigation of the maximum civil penalty.

The preliminary notice of violation will become final in 30 days unless the violations are denied with sufficient justification. The Price-Anderson Amendments Act directed the department to develop and enforce nuclear safety rules with its contractors.

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