An unprecedented number of workers at Hanford have been exposed to dangerous chemical vapors since Thursday, April 28. In one week's time a total of 47 people either sought medical attention after suffering symptoms due to chemical vapor releases or as a precautionary measure.
Symptoms reported by workers include a headache, burning nose and throat, nausea, a metallic taste in the mouth, elevated blood pressure, and dizziness. Experts hired by the Department of Energy, which owns Hanford, have found even a short burst of exposure to chemical vapors can cause long term health effects such as brain damage and lung disease.
Workers sickened by the sudden release of toxic gasses at Hanford has been a problem for nearly 25 years, but those familiar with the nuclear site cannot remember so many people falling victim in such a short period.
“What’s happening at Hanford isn’t right, and I am exploring further legal options to keep our workers safe,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Ferguson filed a lawsuit in September against the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) over the lack of protections for workers. Ferguson filed the suit after an eight-month investigation by the KING 5 Investigators, “The Human Toll of Hanford’s Dirty Secrets”. The 2014 series exposed that the federal government and its contractors hid information about the adverse health effects of vapors to workers for decades and to this day aren’t following their own expert’s advice on how best to keep workers safe.
Local Union 598, which represents Hanford pipefitters and welders, and the Seattle-based advocacy group Hanford Challenge, also filed a lawsuit to force protection for workers on the same day as the Attorney General.
“The events of the past several days are a disturbing illustration of why I filed a lawsuit against the federal government to protect Washingtonians who work at Hanford,” said Ferguson, who will visit the site on Thursday. Ferguson also called the continued episodes of worker exposures “shameful.”
On May 4, two more evacuations were enacted at the site after workers smelled odors and experienced symptoms. Nine workers went to Hanford’s onsite medical clinic. On May 5, an additional five workers went to the onsite medical clinic due to exposures suffered earlier in the week.
“Forty-two employees have been evaluated as a precautionary measure due to reported odors or symptoms at the on-site medical facility since Thursday. Thirty-one employees reported health symptoms while 11 went for cautionary reasons. All have been released to return to work” said Rob Roxburgh of the Dept. of Energy, in a statement sent to KING 5 on Wednesday.
Chemical vapor releases at Hanford come from underground nuclear waste storage tanks that vent the gasses without warning. During the 46 years of plutonium production at Hanford, hundreds of chemicals were used to extract plutonium from spent fuel rods. That left behind a cocktail of lethal chemicals mixed with radioactive waste being held underground in massive storage tanks.
The federal government created the Hanford Nuclear Site in the early 1940’s as part of the Manhattan Project. The plutonium produced there fueled the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. Production continued throughout the Cold War to build up the country's nuclear arsenal.
Since 1989, work at the site has been for cleanup purposes only. The work is riddled with problems such as delays, skyrocketing costs, leaking nuclear waste tanks and the continuation of chemical vapor exposures.
"Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) has taken a number of steps to manage the hazards posed by chemical vapors. These steps include engineered controls, setting up restricted areas where known vapor sources exist, training employees to strict procedures and supplying workers with protective equipment, up to use of a self-contained breathing apparatus supplied with bottled air," wrote Roxburgh.