Workers who get exposed to toxic chemicals or radioactive materials at the Hanford Site can turn to an on-site medical clinic for immediate help and regular check-ups. The center, operated by different private companies over the years, is an important resource for a workforce that is responsible for cleaning up the most contaminated site in the country.
But the KING 5 Investigators found that workers who turn to the clinic for help aren't always told the truth about the effects of toxic chemicals -- a pattern of deception that dates back to the 1940s, when plutonium production at the site was in its early years.
The case of Don Slaugh, a 24-year Hanford veteran, is an example of how medical providers -- paid by the Department of Energy -- hide critical information from workers.
Slaugh, a health physics technician and union safety representative, has been exposed to toxic vapors twice in his career. He said his first exposure, in 1996, knocked him off his feet.
“I basically was overcome by the chemicals, and I remember being dragged out of the area by a co-worker," Slaugh recalled in a recent interview.
He was taken to the on-site medical clinic where health staff later told him he suffered no long-term effects from the exposure.
"They determined I had some spots on my lungs with this inhalation and told me at the time I’d be fine," he said.
But Slaugh was not OK. The chemicals he breathed in left him with an incurable lung condition called reactive airway disease. Today, he's left with just 50 percent of his lung function, and he requires oxygen at night when he sleeps.
"I can’t go anywhere without an oxygen machine," he said.
Slaugh didn't know until years later that the vapors he'd been exposed to had done permanent damage to his body. But the on-site medical clinic did know -- and hid it from him for a decade.
Slaugh only learned how sick he really was after a doctor at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center reviewed his medical files.
In 2005 clinical notes about Slaugh’s case, Dr. Jordan Firestone, the director of Harborview’s Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the time, wrote: “At that time (1996) he (Slaugh) was not aware of residual effects (to his lungs) following that initial exposure. However, as described below, his serial spirometry (breathing tests) during subsequent occupational surveillance (checkups) for respiratory clearance (to go back to work) by the (Hanford) site Medical Director indicates that it was about that time that his spirometric measurements took a turn for the worse (showed lung disease).”
“I feel they didn’t do their jobs as doctors. They betrayed the oath they took,” said Slaugh. “The whole time I was getting chronic lung infections and bronchitis, and I had no idea what was going on. I felt deceived. It’s a joke, a sham.”
Workers still at risk
Since mid-March of this year, 37 Hanford workers have been sent to the on-site medical center or a nearby hospital in Richland after being exposed to chemical vapors escaping from huge tanks holding nuclear waste.
Government studies have found nearly 2,000 toxic chemicals inside the tanks -- the leftovers from the messy work of plutonium production during the Second World War and the Cold War. Caustic chemicals were used to melt uranium fuel rods from nuclear reactors at the site, then small amounts of plutonium were removed from the dissolved fuel.
Waste from the process was pumped into 177 tanks. Decades later, it remains deadly and will continue to be until the technology is developed to permanently dispose of it. The waste, hot from radioactive decay, vents toxic vapors at irregular intervals. While special filters keep radiation from escaping from the tanks, the toxic gases pass through unstopped into the atmosphere around the tank farms.
Hiding information from the beginning
The dangers posed by the plutonium production process were known from the very start. But documents show that federal officials were encouraged to downplay safety risks for fear of upsetting workers and slowing production.
One 1948 memo urges managers to keep a lid on a study on radiation effects, noting there could be a "shattering effect on the morale" if workers know there was "substantial reasons to question" their safety. If the study got out, the memo said, employees could demand "extra hazardous pay," and fears among the workforce could "increase the number of claims" against the government.
Another memo, written in 1947, recommends that managers alter documents about health risks. The author writes that information that could "encourage claims" against the government "should be reworded or deleted."
More recently, a 1997 scientific study that warned that even small exposures to toxics at the site could cause cancer and other diseases was buried by the government. That study was prepared by scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a Richland-based lab operated by a U.S. Department of Energy contractor.
Bob Alvarez, a former presidential adviser on nuclear waste policy, said the 1997 study should have been brought to his attention -- and shared with workers. In 1997 Alvarez was a senior headquarters official with the Department of Energy and worked directly on Hanford issues.
"We were totally unaware of this – it was buried," Alvarez said, "...when you have a study that basically is saying that workers are maybe experiencing a phenomenally high risk of latent disease as a result of exposure to these toxic vapors, this is sort of a real strong signal that you’ve got to drop what you’re doing and fix this problem."
The Dept. of Energy tells us the study results were not made public because another scientist found flaws in the work. "Considering the merits of the report, there are serious errors of concept and process that challenge its value," wrote Melvin First, on Harvard School of Public Health letterhead. KING has found that First had retired from Harvard years prior and that none of the other panel members were associated with the school. In addition First was well known as a hired gun for the tobacco industry who wrote articles about second-hand smoke being harmless.
Workers not told of high readings of chemicals
Over the years Hanford contractors in charge of the waste tanks have assured workers that sudden releases of chemical vapors are inevitable, but the releases contain only small amounts of the toxins – “well below the acceptable exposure limits.” But KING 5 obtained vapor measurement data recorded between 2005 and 2009 that show concentrations of dangerous chemicals well above exposure limits.
In that time period, mercury, a toxic metal that can cause brain damage, was:
* Measured at 473% above occupational limits in 2009.
* Measured at 342% above occupational limits in 2006.
* Measured at 223% above occupational limits in 2009.
Ammonia, which can cause lung damage and glaucoma, was:
* Measured at 1,856% above occupational limits in 2005.
* Measured at 1,595% above occupational limits in 2005.
* Measured at 643% above occupational limits in 2006.
And nitrosodimethylamine, a known carcinogen, was:
* Measured at 3,731% above occupational limits in 2005.
* Measured at 4,880% above occupational limits in 2006.
* Measured at 13,866% above occupational limits in 2006.
Mike Geffre, a Hanford worker who retired in 2013 after 26 years at the site, said he never saw numbers like these.
"Oh my God! I was out there in these farms on these dates, every one of these farms on these dates I was out there working," he said in shock. "I’m just thinking, 'Who in their right mind had this information and didn’t give it to us?'" Geffre said.
"... [S]omebody looked at this information and made the decision we’re not going to tell them. That guy should go to jail. OK, that guy who made that decision that we’re not going to tell the employees should literally be put on trial as a criminal," Geffre said.
The government’s response
On Monday afternoon a Department of Energy media specialist sent KING 5 a statement regarding the measurements and the fact that they were not shared with workers:
“The statistics cited by KING in their query to DOE do not represent potential worker exposure levels, rather they represent levels found within tank head space or exhaust stacks – areas that are not accessible to workers. If work is conducted in proximity to these areas, extensive pre-planning is conducted to reduce the potential for exposure, and the full suite of personal protective equipment is evaluated for worker protection.
“Since 2005, in the more than 59,700 personal and area samples taken – where workers could actually experience exposure, no Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) have been exceeded. This sampling process is consistent with industry standards applied throughout the United States. Additionally, the tank farm OELs are based on extensive toxicological studies by expert committees from academia and government.”
But a longtime Hanford worker with decades of expertise on air sampling at the site said the measured levels do indeed show the risk to workers.
“The fact that those levels exist in the ‘source’ means that those same chemicals have the absolute potential to be present in a worker’s breathing zone. They (Dept. of Energy) are correct that the levels would be less HOWEVER you cannot assume that those levels measured for that single sampling event represent worst case scenario. Other sampling events could show those same chemicals/gases at even higher levels,” said the specialist, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
Don Slaugh, who still works at Hanford despite suffering lung damage on the job, said he does not recall hearing about the threat of chemical vapors when he was working in the tank farms.
His wife, Verna, said it was unfair that workers like her husband were sent out to work without knowledge of possible threats.
"It’s not fair to send somebody out there who doesn’t know," she said, "they need to have the information in their hands to know how dangerous it is to work in these areas."
Verna Slaugh added, "They [Hanford officials] need to think about the workers as being human beings and think about the consequences they are causing them – they need to think about people, not money."
After Don Slaugh became sick from working at Hanford he became an advocate for others. He's now a safety rep at the site. "I don't want to see other people go through what I'm going through, but unfortunately, more people are getting sick," said Slaugh.
Watch KING 5's full series: The Human Toll of Hanford's Dirty Secrets