AG pressed to take action to protect Hanford workers

AG pressed to take action to protect Hanford workers

Credit: KING 5 News

Hanford tank farm workers are required to take extra safety precautions in some areas where vapor releases are a known threat. But respirators are optional for workers in much of the tank farm area.

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by RUSS WALKER and SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on June 19, 2014 at 4:40 PM

Updated Thursday, Jun 19 at 8:11 PM

A watchdog group is urging Washington State's attorney general to take action on behalf of workers at the Hanford Site, the 586-square-mile government reservation near Richland that is heavily contaminated with radioactive and toxic materials.

Hanford Challenge launched an online petition Wednesday to build public support for action by Bob Ferguson, the state's top lawyer. The petition was launched in response to a series of incidents at Hanford that resulted in workers being exposed to toxic chemical vapors.

"It is unconscionable that cleanup workers are put in harm’s way when such exposures are easily preventable," said Hanford Challenge Executive Director Tom Carpenter. "It appears that DOE does not value the safety and health of its own workers. We are calling for the State of Washington to take action where DOE has failed."

The Seattle-based group sent a letter to Ferguson on April 21 outlining the legal authority his office has to order immediate steps to boost worker safety at Hanford.

Hanford Challenge said the state’s legal authority to intervene is laid out in 42 USC 6901: “Congress (has) provided opportunities to bring suit against those who present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment while contributing to the handling of solid or hazardous waste. (The Act) allows the EPA or equivalent state agency... to bring suit..against any person ... who has contributed or who is contributing to (dangerous handling of waste)... . The court can provide both injunctive relief and up to $5000 per day in penalties for violations.”
 
Ferguson responded to the group's letter on June 9, saying that he had asked members of his staff to review the legal options available to the state. The AG's letter also said his office is working with other state officials to ensure worker safety and cleanup milestones are met at Hanford.

“Thank you for your letter about vapor exposure to workers at Hanford’s tank farm, and for your work in this area. I agree this is a very serious issue,” wrote Ferguson.

When contacted by KING 5 for comment on the Hanford Challenge letter, Ferguson's office said it would provide a response on Friday.

Hanford is home to 177 tanks holding the waste generated by more than four decades of plutonium production -- a messy process that involves using caustic chemicals to dissolve nuclear reactor fuel rods to extract small amounts of plutonium. Twenty-five years after plutonium production ceased at the site, 56 million gallons of highly radioactive chemical waste remains to be treated for long-term storage. The tanks hold chemicals such as ammonia, butanol, formaldehyde and mercury. Much of the waste actively emits gas, which is vented through filters designed to remove radioactive particles. Chemicals, however, often pass through.

It is these vapor releases from the tanks that has sent 37 workers to the on-site medical center or a nearby hospital for treatment since mid-March.

Watch KING 5's series of reports: The Human Toll of Hanford's Dirty Secrets.

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