Attorney general loses round in court over Hanford safety
Chief U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice has issued a decision denying a motion for emergency legal intervention to help keep Hanford workers safe. Three parties brought the motion – Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the citizen group Hanford Challenge, and Local 598 union.
The motions were filed in July in response to a record breaking number of Hanford workers getting exposed to suspected toxic vapors at the site that vent from massive underground tanks holding millions of gallons of liquid nuclear waste. The waste is being stored until a permanent disposal solution is developed.
“We believe this decision recognizes the steps we’ve taken as a company to protect worker safety and health by ‘vigorously refining safety measures,’” said Washington River Protection Solutions President Mark Lindholm. “We will continue to partner with the Union in good faith to ensure our workforce is protected as we move forward with our important cleanup mission.” Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) is the US Dept. of Energy’s contractor in charge of managing the 56 million gallons of underground waste at Hanford.
The attorney general, Hanford Challenge and Local 598 argued that Judge Rice should intervene in Hanford operations because the federal government and WRPS couldn’t be trusted to continue with upgraded safeguards for the workforce such as mandatory oxygen tanks. The safety enhancements are part of an agreement with the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council (HAMTC) reached in August.
Judge Rice ruled that the current policies in place should keep workers safe and therefore don’t require judicial intervention. But Hanford Challenge points out the safety features agreed to currently are voluntary and could go by the wayside.
“The court cites that mandatory use of supplied air will continue under the Memorandum of Agreement (with HAMTC), yet …this agreement is voluntary and can be changed by the company and/or the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council at any time,” said Tom Carpenter, Executive Director of Hanford Challenge.
Despite arguments by WRPS and the US Department of Energy that there is no proof chemical vapors have made Hanford workers sick over the years, Judge Rice didn’t buy it.
"The Court does not deny that vapor exposures have occurred or that employees have experienced serious vapor-related illnesses. Defendants' arguments debunking and minimizing Hanford employees' health related claims are unpersuasive and belied by the record,” wrote Judge Rice in his 18 page decision.
“I’m pleased the court recognized the importance of the safety measures that were implemented only after we filed our motion for emergency worker protections,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said. “As we prepare for trial next year, I will be watching closely to make sure those protections remain in place.”
The federal government’s own paid experts have warned about the lack of a proper chemical vapor program at Hanford since 1991. Hundreds of workers report suffering serious health effects due to the vapors including lung damage, brain damage and nerve damage.
Plutonium for the secret US nuclear weapons program was manufactured at Hanford from 1943 to 1987. Since 1989 the only work at the site has been to clean up the waste left behind by the 44 years of production.
Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the western hemisphere.