Hanford continues to mislead workers about toxic vapors

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After a 33 year career at Hanford working in the tank farms, Abe Garza of Richland is off the job and he’ll never work again. He has permanent lung damage and brain damage from exposure to toxic chemical vapors at the jobsite. On some days the gasping for air and coughing is so violent he passes out.

“It feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest,” said Garza.

The damage to his brain has left him unable to drive and remember simple tasks. Once an avid reader of classic novels and books on mathematics, it’s now difficult for Garza to read any kind of material. According to his wife, the chemical exposures have turned their lives upside down.

“(It’s) devastate our lives,” said Garza’s wife, Bertolla Bugarin.

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Garza is one of an unknown number of current and former Hanford workers who suffer debilitating health effects because of a decades old problem of chemical vapors venting from underground nuclear waste tanks at the former plutonium production facility. Since April 28, 51 workers, a record number, have suspected they’ve been exposed to vapors. Some are still too sick to return to work, mostly due to breathing problems.

Despite findings by doctors that workers such as Abe Garza are sick as a direct result of exposure to chemical vapors, top managers from the U.S. Dept. of Energy, which owns Hanford, and its contractor in charge of the tank farms, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), report their testing of the airspace after exposures always shows very small amounts of chemical concentrations.

“Air samples taken yesterday in two areas where odors were reported indicated chemical concentrations well below regulatory standards,” said WRPS spokesperson Rob Roxburgh in a statement on May 5, 2016 after nine people went to the onsite medical clinic due to suspected exposures in two separate locations.  

This has been the message from management to the workforce for decades at Hanford. In his 33 year career, Garza said he was consistently reassured in trainings that chemical vapors were in control at the site and always measured at acceptable levels. He said the chemical hazard trainers never mentioned readings of chemical concentrations measured at unsafe levels.

“I’ve never heard anybody say anything about that,” said Garza. “When they tell you what’s safe you would think that that’s (the truth).”

Records obtained by KING 5 show dozens of readings over the years show measurements far above acceptable levels. Some examples include: mercury, which can cause brain damage, measured in 2009 at 473 percent above occupational limits. Also in 2009, furan, a carcinogen, measured at 3145 percent above occupational limits. Ammonia, which can cause glaucoma and lung damage, was measured at more than 1800 percent above the limit. A known cancer-causing chemical called nitrosodimethylamine was recorded at 13,000 percent above the legal limits in 2005.

And on October 21, 2015 in what is known as the C-Farm of underground tanks, routine sampling found emissions “above (the) action level”, which prompted managers to “access restriction” they deemed as necessary “to prevent worker exposure to an uncharacterized chemical hazard.”

Garza and Bugarin said they feel betrayed information like this was never passed along to the workforce. The data is important they said because in many areas at Hanford it is up to the employees to choose what type of personal protective equipment they will wear on a given day.

“I’m most mad about Hanford lying to the employees that it is not dangerous out there.  And that they are safe. That’s what I am most made about,” said Bugarin. “It’s a lie. It’s impossible for that to be. It’s scientifically impossible to have normal levels all the time. You’re in the most toxic site in the United States. It’s almost as insult to anybody with (any) intelligence.”

“I believe they should have been more forthcoming about that,” said Garza.

There’s one chemical compound in the waste at Hanford that’s particularly lethal. Dimethylmercury is so toxic there are no safe amounts tolerated in the state of Washington.  In 1997 Dartmouth College Chemistry Professor Karen Wetterhahn died 10 months after two tiny drops of dimethylmercury fell onto her gloved hand.

“Dimethylmercury is probably one of the most insidious, most dangerous compounds that could be in the breathing environment anywhere,” said Dr. Marco Kaltofen, an affiliate research engineer with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Program. Kaltofen is also a Hanford expert.

Dimethylmercury has been detected at Hanford. In 2004 a tank farm manager wrote C-farm tanks were definitely exceeding safe limits for mercury, and that could be an indicator of excessive amounts of dimethylmercury.  “Approximately 7 C-Farm tanks have indications of headspace or breather filter data in excess of the mercury vapor TLV’s (Threshold Limit Values) If all this mercury was present as dimethylmercury (unlikely, but conservative): a total of 9 C-farm tanks would exceed the dimethylmercury vapor TLV’s,” wrote Jim Honeyman of CH2M Hill.

That prompted the government contractor CH2M Hill to add dimethylmercury to the list of chemicals of concern to monitor at the site.

But that changed in 2008 when the Energy Department changed contractors - from CH2M Hill to WRPS. KING has obtained a document showing after WRPS took over operations, dimethylmercury was taken off the list of chemicals to be concerned about and the company quit monitoring for levels that would be harmful to human health. 

As recently as 2015, WRPS was monitoring for dimethylmercury, not for concentrations harmful to the workforce, but for a different set of environmental standards as per the state’s Clean Air Act.  On December 15, 2015 WRPS alerted the Washington state Department of Ecology that technicians found dimethylmercury emissions “exceeding (state) permit limits.” The measurements were found in the AY/AZ double shell tank farm. 

“Any responsible employer is going to be looking for dimethylmercury if they have a suspicion it might be present. We have more than a suspicion. We’ve got years of test data that show that it’s in the tanks; that it’s in the air,” said Kaltofen.

“If it were up to me, I would probably prosecute if I could the people that are allowing this, which is upper management or Washington River Protection (Solutions). Somebody needs to be held accountable at whatever level to stop this,” said Bugarin.

On June 1 KING 5 wrote to representatives of the US Dept. of Energy and Washington River Protection Solutions for comment on this story. Questions were submitted via email regarding dimethylmercury, including an inquiry into why the contractor was no longer testing for it. No one responded to the email.