A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Energy and the contractor managing millions of gallons of nuclear waste at the Hanford Site must take interim measures to better protect workers from poisonous gases.

The ruling by District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice came after Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed an emergency legal motion on July 20 asking the judge to intervene in the operations at the nuclear cleanup site to protect workers from continued exposure to toxic chemical vapors.

On Tuesday, Judge Rice set October 12 as the date for oral arguments on the motion at the federal courthouse in Spokane. Rice also ordered measures to protect workers until the hearing.

Those measures include the use of oxygen tanks for all workers in the Hanford tank farms, where 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemically contaminated waste is stored in tanks underground. He also called for a pilot monitoring program to be installed to help warn the workforce when toxic vapors are in their breathing space.

Chemical vapors have long been a problem at Hanford. They vent from the underground tanks as the waste ages and is disturbed. Some of the approximately 1,500 chemicals in the waste include mercury, ammonia, dimethyl mercury and heavy metals such as strontium 90 and cesium 137.

[Background: What is Hanford?]

"These are basic but important safety measures that should have been in place long ago but weren’t due to delays of Energy and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions. We’re pleased that our motion for preliminary injunction has already brought benefit to Hanford workers by ensuring that these measures remain in place until the court rules on our motion,” said Ferguson in a statement. “I will keep fighting for real, lasting change in the federal government’s culture of indifference to Hanford worker safety.”

The emergency motion was filed by the AG after nearly 60 workers were exposed to suspected chemical vapors at Hanford since April 28. Some workers were evaluated at hospitals in the Tri-Cities and at Harborview in Seattle and remain too sick to work. Others sought medical evaluation at Hanford’s onsite medical clinic after experiencing symptoms including nose bleeds, dizziness, headaches, difficulty breathing and a metallic taste.

The state took the drastic action after filing a first of its kind lawsuit against the federal government and WRPS in 2015 for allegedly violating state and federal regulations by knowingly putting workers in harm’s way of toxic chemical vapors.

Studies dating back to 1992, many of them commissioned by the Department of Energy itself, are critical of Hanford’s vapor program and warn of a causal link between exposure to vapors and adverse health effects. Despite recommendations and warnings by their own experts, Hanford managers downplay the problem and instead repeatedly give the message that they never measure chemical vapors above the acceptable occupational limits, which means the workers are safe.

After a rash of exposures in 2014 brought to light by the KING 5 Investigators, one top Hanford official told the media no evidence of vapor exposures existed.

“By every indication we have, our workers are not exposed to any vapors,” said Bob Wilkinson, the WRPS manager of environment, safety, health and quality at WRPS in 2014. Wilkinson currently works as chief operations officer for another Hanford contractor, Mission Support Alliance.

Ferguson said given all these factors, his office isn’t willing to wait for a 2017 trial date.

“These problems need to be fixed yesterday. And the federal government knows what they can do to fix it. Their own reports tell them what they need to do to fix it and it’s frankly maddening that they refuse to do it,” said Ferguson. “In fact, since we filed our lawsuit they’ve actually reduced worker protection. If that’s not a culture of indifference, I don’t know what is.”

The problems facing Hanford workers today stem back to the 1940s when 595 square miles of land along the Columbia River near Richland was chosen by the federal government to be a crucial part of the secret Manhattan Project. It was at Hanford that plutonium was produced to fuel the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945.

Production of plutonium continued into the late 1980s as the country stockpiled its nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War. Nearly five decades of plutonium production left behind a toxic legacy – 56 million gallons of liquid nuclear waste stored in 177 aging underground tanks. Now, workers engage in cleanup activities only, including managing the toxic cocktail of radioactive isotopes and dangerous chemicals buried in the tanks.

The Department of Energy and WRPS had asked the judge to postpone the hearing until late November, but instead Judge Rice set the proceeding for October and imposed the safety measures.

“Although the U.S. Department of Energy, continuing its pattern of delay, asked the court to push the hearing off until nearly Thanksgiving, we will be arguing for our more robust safety plan on October 12 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington,” said Ferguson.