A draft report obtained by the KING 5 Investigators paints a damning picture of worker safety protocols at the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington, debunking claims made by the government and a private contractor that workers were not being exposed to toxic chemicals on the job.
Written by top experts in the fields of toxicology and worker safety, the 147-page assessment condemns the system put in place to protect workers from dangerous releases of chemical vapors that occur around Hanford's tank farms, where 56 million gallons of the deadliest substances on earth are stored in underground tanks.
The report was prepared after a series of incidents starting last March sent dozens of Hanford workers to medical facilities, with some suffering from acute respiratory and other health problems. Costing at least $2 million, the report was paid for by the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns Hanford, and the private contractor in charge of the tank farms -- Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS).
The "current site programs…and processes cannot effectively control, mitigate, respond to, and communicate about (tank vapor emissions)," the experts conclude in the report. "The ongoing emission of (known toxic) tank vapors…is inconsistent with the provision of a safe and healthful workplace free of recognized hazards."
Translation: WRPS is violating federal regulations that require it to provide a workplace free of known hazards that can cause serious illness or death.
Contradicting statements made by Department of Energy and WRPS officials, the report's authors state that even short, acute exposures can lead to devastating consequences: "The evidence strongly suggests" vapor exposures cause "adverse health effects" including "significant organ damage."
The expert panel's report is expected to be released this week. Officials from the Department of Energy and WRPS did not respond to voicemails and emails seeking comment for this story.
A broken safety system
Since March 19, nearly 60 Hanford workers have reported symptoms after inhaling unknown chemical vapors. Months after their exposure, some of the workers are still sick and undergoing medical treatments for their symptoms, which include difficulty breathing, headaches, memory loss, and shaking.
The KING 5 Investigators exposed this string of chemical vapor exposures at the site, as well as glaring holes in Hanford's program to protect workers from known hazards of toxic chemicals in the workplace. The problems revealed include not protecting workers with appropriate safety gear, ignoring expert advice gathered over decades on how to make the worksite safer, and deceiving employees on the severity of the chemical exposures.
After KING 5 aired seven news reports about the chemical exposures, WRPS announced it had commissioned the Savannah River National Lab to establish and oversee a panel of external experts to review its entire vapor program. "This new review, with its broad scope and the involvement of recognized experts, will make a difference in better protecting Hanford workers from future chemical vapor exposures," said WRPS President and Project Manager Dave Olson at the time.
But KING 5 found the results weren't what WRPS expected. According to sources familiar with discussions of the expert panel's report, top company executives were openly frustrated with the findings and dispute many of the experts' conclusions.
Some of the findings include:
• Hanford managers are in denial over the enormity of the vapor problem.
• Small bursts of chemical exposures can cause adverse health effects, including organ damage.
• Workers are being exposed to chemical concentrations above acceptable occupational levels.
• The federal government's contractor is in violation of federal regulations that require a workplace free of known hazards that can cause illness or death.
• WRPS is using flawed science to measure how serious the exposures are to employees.
• The site has inadequate vapor monitoring systems.
• WRPS nor the Department of Energy know exactly what chemicals their employees are inhaling when exposed to tank emissions.
Hanford bosses: No vapor problem
Since mid-March to the most recent exposure event on October 2, Energy and WRPS officials have assured the public and their employees that while workers have "smelled odors" or "experienced irritants," that the vapor exposures are within safe limits.
This summer during a media tour at the site, representatives from the Energy Department and WRPS appeared perplexed as to why employees are showing symptoms. They said their program is state of the art and that thousands of tests failed to detect problematic vapor levels. According to their results, not one exposure over the course of nearly ten years was found to be above acceptable occupational limits. They said their own tests showed that by the time the vapors reached the airspace where workers were present, the chemical concentrations were harmless.
"By every indication we have, our workers are not exposed to any vapors – yet they're having symptoms," said Bob Wilkinson of WRPS. "By all of our 40,000 samples, we're within those (acceptable) realms – well within those realms and in most of the cases at (inconsequential) background levels."
"We don't have any data that shows an exposure above an occupational exposure limit," said Tom Fletcher of the Dept. of Energy. "By all thresholds and standards we are significantly lower than anybody else out there in the United States of America."
The blue ribbon panel concluded otherwise.
"In four of the five exposures where personnel experienced upper respiratory issues, field measurements found concentration of irritants at concentrations far exceeding the (occupational limits)," wrote the experts.
The scientists also found WRPS is using flawed methodology to calculate the exposure concentrations.
The team found WRPS often tested the air space 45 to 120 minutes after an exposure incident, when the chemicals had already dissipated.
In addition, they criticized WRPS for not looking at real-time concentrations inhaled by workers in a short, acute burst. Instead, the company calculates the concentrations spread out over several hours.
"It was reported in incident investigation reports that no (chemicals of concern) were above the detection limit. This unfortunate concept should be revised immediately," wrote the team. "(This approach) is inappropriate and undermines the credibility of the industrial hygiene (vapor expert) function."
Current and former Hanford workers say management hasn't taken their concerns about vapors seriously for years and that this study provides vindication for them. They hope the results are a wakeup call.
"For so long the workers have been saying we have a problem and the company's been denying it," said retired Hanford instrument technician Mike Geffre. "I feel like we're not alone in saying there's a problem out there (anymore)."
Many workers told KING they were insulted by comments made by Hanford managers who led the summer media tour – examples of their dismissive attitudes.
The managers told reporters the symptoms of exposures were similar to what you might experience with household cleaners or smelling salts.
"Like when you take a whiff of a chemical while you're cleaning your bathroom or something like that. You can feel an irritation in your throat. Those are the most common (symptoms)," said Wilkinson.
"We do have smells in the (tank) farms that do cause irritation," said Fletcher. "They use ammonia in the medical field for a reason – because it creates a mild acid and creates irritation. If you've ever had one of those ammonia capsules near you, you don't want to do it twice because it's a quick wake up. It makes your eyes water and the whole deal."
The expert panel found top executives at Hanford are a big part of the problem. They found pervasive denial about the severity of the vapor issue among Department of Energy and WRPS managers.
"Only management can institute the systemic change to address the vapor issue. Management must recognize the health risk associated with episodic releases of tank vapors…..Acceptance of (that fact that workers are getting sick from vapors) should be communicated to all internal and external stakeholders," wrote the expert panel.
The panel, referred to as the Tank Vapor Assessment Team (TVAT), was organized by the Savannah River National Laboratory, another Energy Department contractor. Its members include ten leaders in the field of nuclear science and health, including professors, nuclear engineers and toxicologists.