Legal documents filed by the Washington state attorney general, the advocacy group Hanford challenge and the local 598 pipefitters union detail a trail of decisions by managers at Hanford that, according to the records, explain why a record number of workers have been exposed to suspected chemical vapors and are suffering adverse health effects from them in the last three months.

The documents paint a picture of a government contractor eager to cut back on safety protections for the workforce, even during some of the most hazardous work conducted in years. Then, the attorney general and Hanford challenge contend managers didn’t respond accordingly, but instead looked the other way as workers began getting sick in record numbers.

“WRPS’ position is simple defiance, and shows an unreasonable willingness to sacrifice the health of Hanford workers. Sadly, this is a repetition of a pattern that has occurred for over 20 years (at Hanford),” wrote Hanford Challenge attorneys in a legal motion filed on July 21.

“The federal government (US Dept. of Energy) is not transparent about what’s going on. They provide misinformation repeatedly. And those aren’t my words, a federal judge a year ago blasted the federal government about a lack of transparency around Hanford. So this is just more of the same, frankly,” said state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Trouble Begins

The legal motions were filed in federal court as part of an emergency action to ask a judge to intervene to force the US Department of Energy, which owns Hanford, and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) to increase worker protections. According to the documents, the trouble began in March. That’s when WRPS began the complicated and dangerous task of pumping out 800,000 gallons of radioactive and chemically contaminated waste from an infamous underground holding tank known as AY-102. This is the first double shell tank to leak at Hanford and was the subject of a 2013 investigation by KING 5, “Hanford’s Dirty Secrets.”

Anytime hot, volatile waste is disturbed, as in the AY-102 pumping project, a higher risk of chemical vapor emissions exists. To gear up, WRPS beefed up safety measures such as putting all employees in the field on oxygen tanks called SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). Managers also increased the area in which people had to be on SCBA.

Safety downgrade decision

The safety strategy appeared to be working, until a major decision was made in April, one month into the pumping project. On April 13, WRPS chief operating officer, Robert Gregory, sent an email alerting employees that vapor sampling results showed gases venting from the transfer of the waste contained such low levels of toxic chemicals that they would not be harmful to workers.

“On April 13, 2016, WRPS Chief Operating Officer Robert Gregory announced that sampling data justified eliminating the use of SCBA or other respiratory protections in the impacted farms altogether, except for a small vapor control zone,” wrote Bob Ferguson in the motion. “In doing so, WRPS relied on the same flawed monitoring results and techniques that (a 2014 group of the department of energy’s experts) criticized as inadequately protective.”

The expert panel referred to by Ferguson was assembled by the Department of Energy after a 2014 series of reports by KING 5, “The Human Toll of Hanford’s Dirty Secrets.” The series revealed a pattern of deception regarding the serious hazards of chemical vapors by the federal government going back decades. The series prompted the $2 million dollar study by the Savannah River tank vapor assessment team. The experts found that WRPS was not using data that reflected the impact of short bursts of chemical vapors that are capable of causing “adverse health effects, particularly upper respiratory (problems).” The blue ribbon panel had harsh criticism for the way WRPS sampled and analyzed air after a vapor episode.

“The current program is not designed to detect and is incapable of detecting and quantifying this type of acute exposure event,” wrote the vapor team.

“(The Savannah River experts) stated that relying primarily upon long-term monitoring, after-the-fact grab samples, or non-chemical-specific readings is inadequate…Yet WRPS’s Chief Operating Officer, Robert Gregory, admitted that WRPS still relies on that flawed approach,” wrote Hanford Challenge attorneys.

After the Gregory email WRPS did indeed stop mandatory SCBA for all employees and shrunk the area where employees had to don the protective gear. Two weeks later, workers began getting exposed to suspected chemical vapors in record numbers.

Exposures increase

“The impact of the decision to reduce protective gear was borne by the workers just two weeks later when, starting April 28, 2016, more than 40 tank farm workers required medical treatment for exposure to chemical vapors in and around the tank farms over a five-day period,” wrote Ferguson.

The attorney general said the decision to reduce worker protections was especially troublesome considering ‘WRPS’s own limited monitoring data’ at the time showed dangerous levels of ammonia coming out of the venting systems connected to the underground nuclear waste tanks involved in the pumping.

“These exhaust levels greatly exceed the established occupational exposure limit for ammonia…and are at levels that are known to cause disabling effects even during brief exposures,” wrote Ferguson.

“Despite these warnings, WRPS reduced the size of its protective areas and then tried to assure workers the areas were ‘safe’….“This reduction (in safety protocols) resulted in harm to human life. Of the more than 50 workers exposed this spring, some were exposed in areas that would have required respiratory protection prior to the reduction in size of the vapor control zone,” wrote Ferguson.

Victim speaks out

“It makes you angry that they’re using you as a piece of cord wood, you’re just a number, a rock, a brick. You’re just a piece that they use until you’re not good to them anymore,” said 24 year Hanford veteran Steve Ellingson. He is one of the workers who experienced an exposure to vapors after the reduction in safeguards. Since his exposure in April he’s experienced difficulty breathing, a burning sensation in his lungs and extreme exhaustion. He’s been prescribed to use a rescue inhaler to open up his lungs four times a day.

“Right now my lungs hurt all the time. It’s a dull ache all the time across my chest. (It) never goes away,” said Ellingson. Ellingson was featured in several KING 5 reports in 2014 that first exposed the vapor problem at the site. He was one of the workers victimized that year as well. He said getting another exposure makes him worry he’ll never completely heal.

“I was knocked all the way back to square one,” said Ellingson. “It feels like it’s getting worse every day. I believe from what I hear from other people with the same type of exposures that I’ll be affected for the rest of my life.”

Since the late 1980’s workers at Hanford have been attempting to clean up the nuclear waste mess left behind from the production of plutonium at the site to fuel the bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II. Production continued to beef up the country’s nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War. The process of extracting plutonium from spent fuel rods created a toxic legacy in Eastern Washington – 56 million gallons nuclear waste buried in aging, leaky underground tanks. As the waste decays and is disturbed during activities such as pumping projects, it vents chemical vapors through stacks attached to the underground holding tanks. Some of the chemicals measured at Hanford include mercury, dimethyl mercury, nitrous oxide, furan, ammonia, and formaldehyde.

Neither WRPS nor the Department of Energy would conduct an interview for this report, but the Department of Energy did issue a statement. A spokesperson wrote safety of the workforce is “a top priority” but that “based on data to date, and the safety measures implemented by the contractor, the Department believes workers are safe while at the worksite.”

Here is the entire statement:

"Safety of the workforce is a top priority for the U.S. Department of Energy. The Department takes seriously any safety concern and based on data to date, and the safety measures implemented by the contractor, the Department believes workers are safe while at the worksite. Nevertheless, the Department understands workers have continued to express concerns, and has been and continues to take action. In the past year the Energy Department has invested more than $50 million to address these concerns.

New vapor monitoring and detection equipment has been deployed over the past two years including small, personal monitoring and detection devices; sensors for particles 1/10 the size of a grain of table salt, and scanners, mobile and portable spectrometers that detect ammonia, nitrous oxide and other various volatile organic compounds. In addition we have introduced an array of infrared detection systems and different types of stack and area sampling equipment for field testing in response to these reports. A mobile laboratory is also available that can detect in real time, a wide range of chemicals at levels as low as a few parts per trillion at the site of potential vapor reports. All of these methods are to help the Department get a better understanding of how to reduce or eliminate potential vapor events.

The department continues to review all reports of odors and/or symptoms and is working towards better understanding how to further address these concerns to ensure a safe environment for workers that is protective of their health."

Ferguson said the culture at Hanford will not change until the federal government admits it has a serious vapor problem, just as their own experts have underscored in a series of commissioned reports dating back to 1992.

“I don’t say it lightly when I say there’s a culture of indifference toward worker safety there. But what other conclusion can one reach? Their own experts tell them what to do, they refuse to do it and workers still get sick.”

-- Follow Susannah Frame on Twitter: @SFrameK5

Background: What is Hanford?