As a group of nine Hanford workers smelled an intense ammonia-like substance Wednesday morning, sources tell KING an alarm meant to warn people of chemical dangers was ignored.
The KING 5 Investigators have learned that an instrument called an AreaRAE multi-sensor chemical detector signaled danger for approximately ten minutes before workers were instructed to evacuate.
Afterward, six of the nine employees were transported to two separate Hanford medical clinics for evaluation. Symptoms included headache and nausea. The workers were outside of the double-shell tank farm, AX, near a tent where they change clothing. With this latest group, 67 people were exposed to suspected chemical vapors at Hanford in the last eight months, which is a record.
The vapor problem at the site is at the center of an ongoing legal battle between plaintiffs Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, local 598 union and defendants – the US Department of Energy and its contractor Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS).
The RAE systems website characterizes the alarm equipment as a “multi-gas, multi-threat detector equipped with more sensors, more versatility, and more insight into threats happening in real-time – arming you with the information you need when seconds count.”
But according to people in the field Wednesday morning, seconds didn’t seem to count as they took in the suspected toxic fumes.
“We were told to enter and continue getting dressed, and that the alarm had just been bumped and that’s why it was going off….about ten minutes later we were told to evacuate," one worker said.
A WRPS spokesperson communicated a different version of events than the employees’ recollection.
Here is the full statement from WRPS:
On the morning of Nov. 30, workers were preparing to enter the AX tank farm by dressing in protective clothing inside a change tent.
At 8:08 a.m., an AreaRAE instrument, which provides real-time measurements of ammonia and volatile organic compounds, was reported to be in alarm. Workers reported smelling an ammonia-like odor. The work supervisor in the change tent called the Central Shift Office to report that the workers had smelled odors.
At 8:10 a.m., the Central Shift Office issued an AOP-015, the procedure code followed when workers report an unexpected and unidentified odor. Workers were directed to exit the area.
Thirty-two workers were in the vicinity at the time of the event, nine of them reported smelling odors. Six of the nine requested and underwent medical evaluation at the on-site facility; four of those reported symptoms. All employees were cleared by medical professionals to return to work. Industrial hygiene technicians responded to the area and no elevated readings were identified.
An examination of the AreaRAE instrument showed that it alarmed because of restricted air flow into the device. The instrument was reset and returned to service after the area was verified as safe for workers to return.
Thirty-two employees evacuated the area. According to WRPS, the six electrical sub-contractors seen by medical professionals have all been cleared to return to work.
WRPS also told KING that they tested the air and found no problems.
“Samples were taken in the area and results are compliant with safety standards,” wrote Rob Roxburgh of WRPS external affairs.
But KING has found air sampling didn’t take place at the site for at least an hour after the event and that the company couldn’t identify which chemicals they were exposed to.
“How can they know the (safe) levels of chemicals or vapors when they haven’t been identified?” asked one employee.
Another veteran worker said this kind of communication to workers who experienced an exposure to potentially harmful toxins is “asinine.” “It makes people think they’re crazy. An hour after you get out there (to test) you’ll never see what was there at the time. The winds have blown, the conditions have changed. They don’t know if the levels were safe or not,” said the employee who did not want to be identified.
Since 1991 multiple studies have been commissioned about Hanford’s vapor program, many of them by the Dept. of Energy’s own experts and scientists. The message has been consistent that protections are lacking for workers and that there is a link between exposures and adverse health effects. But the Dept. of Energy and WRPS are fighting these claims in the lawsuit, maintaining they are doing everything they can to keep the workforce safe and that there is no proof that anyone has ever contracted a serious illness from vapors at the site.