Dozens of Hanford workers, many sick from getting exposed to poisonous vapors at the former nuclear weapons production site, gathered at a union hall in Pasco Wednesday to say they are fed up. They want the US Department of Energy, which owns Hanford, to admit there's a serious chemical vapor problem at the site and to fix it.
Among the speakers was Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. He assured the crowd he is 100% behind the workers. For the first time in state history, the state, under the direction of Ferguson, is suing the US Dept. of Energy and a government contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, for failing to protect the health of workers.
Ferguson said the issue was personal. He referenced his brother who also works in a dangerous field.
"If his employer wasn't providing him a safe working environment, that would piss me off; that would piss me off. By the same token as Attorney General for the state, if any employer in the state wasn't treating their workers fairly, not fair wages, or not a safe working environment that would piss me off just as much."
Ferguson assured the crowd he's in it for the long haul. He says his lawsuit to protect the health of Hanford workers is the most important work of his office, even as dozens of additional workers are getting sick.
Just last week a worker at the site, Steve Ellingson says he was exposed again after a debilitating vapor uptake two years ago. "You'll have to excuse me if I cough because last Thursday I walked into a vapor cloud again. And I have pneumonia and I'm not doing really good," said Ellingson.
Wednesday's meeting was a chance for workers to let the Attorney General and other lawmakers in the crowd know they need help. For 20 plus years, workers at the former plutonium production facility have been suffering from exposure to nasty chemical vapors and gases that vent into the air from underground tanks. That's where millions of gallons of radioactive and chemically contaminated waste has been stored for decades.
Longtime worker Mario Diaz struggled to speak at the town hall through coughing and gasping. He has permanent lung damage from chemical vapor exposure. "This is the card I'm dealt out in the area….seven exposures."
Workers and their families said they're sick and tired of Hanford officials dismissing their health problems. They are constantly assured by Hanford officials that the amount of chemical vapors escaping from underground tanks is so small, everyone should be fine.
"They're not fine. People are dying every day." explained Sherry Gosseen who was among the meeting attendees. She lost her father-in- law to lung disease and now her husband is recovering from a rare form of cancer after working at the Hanford site.
Similar stories were echoed over and over at the meeting. The workers and their families hope Hanford executives and the state's congressional delegation in DC is hearing them loud and clear as well.