A recent spate of chemical vapor exposure incidents at the Hanford Site is focusing attention on how the Department of Energy and the private companies working on the nuclear waste cleanup treat workers after they have been injured.
Twenty-eight workers required medical care in a six-week period in March and April after breathing toxic vapors at the Hanford tank farms. Several required hospital care and report they continue to experience health problems -- especially headaches, breathing difficulty and fatigue.
If the experience of former workers who were injured on the job is an indication of what will happen to the recently exposed, they are not likely to receive swift assistance in the form of disability coverage.
KING 5 News spoke with dozens of former Hanford workers or their surviving family members, and each recounted a frustrating fight to obtain the health and disability income benefits they were entitled to.
One of those workers was Gary Sall, a carpenter who worked 28 years at Hanford performing many jobs inside the tank farms, where 177 storage tanks hold 56 million gallons of radioactive chemical sludge, the product of 45 years of plutonium production.
Sall died in 2011. He first began to exhibit signs of illness a decade ago, when he began to have memory problems. Within five years, his wife said Sall could no longer go to work. His speech was severely impaired, he suffered from hallucinations and lost his mental faculties.
Both Gary Sall and his wife Barbara worked at Hanford. She said the government contractor managers they worked under routinely assured them they were safe; that the safety protocols in place would protect them from potential dangers at the site.
"We didn't have a clue. We thought we were safe. We thought they knew what they were doing but they don't have a clue,” Barbara said.
Sall was diagnosed with work-related toxic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disorder. The medical experts said the condition was the result of being repeatedly exposed to chemical vapors and solvents on the job.
“It got to where no one should ever see their loved one go through what he went through,” said Barb. “It got very, very bad.”
Sall and his family asked the federal government to declare him eligible for disability, but instead of obtaining the help they needed in a timely manner, Barbara worked for more than a year to get her husband's claim accepted. While attending to her husband’s myriad of health problems, she spent the rest of her time fighting the federal government. The insurer, a U.S. Department of Energy contractor that managed the workers compensation program for Hanford workers, suggested Sall's problems could have been caused by drinking alcohol or a vitamin B-12 deficiency.
The fact that she had to fight so hard, Barb said, is an example of the government’s disregard for the workers performing vitally important cleanup work.
"Once you get sick out there you're no good anymore,” said Barb Sall. "They don't think that we're people out there -that we have families that care about us. It's just go and get the job done at all cost."
What the Sall family went through in getting benefits is standard operating procedure at Hanford. The worker’s compensation program is not run by Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries. Instead, it’s a self-insured program with the Department of Energy in charge. That set up created a system where the de facto response is that Hanford workers are not injured by their work at the site.
A study conducted for the Washington state Dept. of Labor and Industries found that twice as many Hanford workers are denied claims compared with the state average. And the number increased to triple the rate of denied claims in chemical exposure-related claims compared with the state average. The report focused on claims opened or re-opened in 2004.
Kevin Smith, the top Energy Department official at Hanford, says he was unaware of the problems that Sall and other workers experienced. Smith has been at the helm in Richland for a year and a half. He said he wants answers.
"If a worker is impacted and came here and did national security work for the good of the nation and the Cold War, they ought to be treated appropriately. And we'll chase that and see what the problem is and where we might have,” Smith said.
But Smith may need help to fix the system. The work at Hanford is funded by the government and overseen not just by the Energy Department, but by the U.S. Congress.
Barb Sall told KING 5 that it feels like the other Washington -- DC -- is “turning its back on the fact that Hanford exists, that it is as contaminated as it is and it is killing people.”
KING 5 has a crew in the nation’s capital this week. We are planning to show the congressional delegation the stories of the family and others -- to ask them one question: What are they doing to ensure that worker safety is a priority at Hanford, and that workers injured on the job will be taken care of.
Today, KING 5 met with Washington Congressman Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. The Hanford waste is a byproduct of our nation’s nuclear weapons program, and he said he is in a position to amend laws currently on the books that govern how workers at facilities like Hanford are treated.
Smith said he was made aware of the problems after watching the KING 5 reports and that he would be calling Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz following the interview he conducted with the KING reporter.