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Safety failures lead to ‘death sentence' at Hanford

Workers battling beryllium sickness find themselves embroiled in a cut-throat, expensive legal battle if they decide to challenge a workers compensation denial.

<p>Dave Aardal (Credit: KING)</p>

Dave Aardal conducted some of the most dangerous work at Hanford during his ten years of employment at the former nuclear weapons production facility. Part of his job included training on safety measures and equipment, during which he was assured that following the protocols would keep him safe from toxic chemicals and radioactive waste.

But six years after being removed from his job by Hanford medical professionals due to illness, Aardal, a 45-year-old father of three, is gravely sick and dying from a rare illness called chronic beryllium disease (CBD).

There is only one way to contract CBD: A person must be exposed to too much beryllium -- a highly toxic metal used in the production of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which manages the Hanford cleanup, concedes many facilities there has been significant beryllium contamination. And outside of some aerospace jobs in Western Washington, Hanford is one of the only places in the state where beryllium exists in sufficient quantities to pose a threat to health.

After Aardal’s diagnosis of CBD in 2008, he followed protocol and filed a workers compensation claim through the contractor tasked with managing the claims of Hanford workers, Penser North America. He believed approval would come quickly: When a person works at a site riddled with beryllium and is then diagnosed with CBD, top experts in the field say the illness should be presumed to stem from occupational exposure.

That’s not the way Penser and the Energy Department saw it. Penser’s medical professionals concluded that Aardal was ill with a different disease – sarcoidosis.

Sarcoidosis looks exactly like CBD, but it can’t be tied to occupational illness. In other words, Penser was telling Aardal he didn’t get sick from working at Hanford.

“As soon as I got sick, they flushed me down the toilet like I was used toilet paper,” said Aardal from his home in Kalispell, Mont. Aardal moved to Montana two years ago with his wife and three young children.

After a seven-month investigation that included reviewing hundreds of pages of documentation and interviewing dozens of Hanford workers and scientists, the KING 5 Investigators found Aardal’s experience is not unique. Since it started overseeing the Hanford worker compensation program in 2008, Penser North America has denied chronic beryllium disease claims in near systemic fashion.

Workers battling beryllium sickness also find themselves embroiled in a cut-throat, expensive legal battle if they decide to challenge the denial. In Aardal’s case, it was a four-year fight with the Department of Energy and Penser that left him and his family broke. They were forced to sell their family home in the Tri-Cities and move to Montana where they could live cheaper. They wiped out their 401K and sold family possessions including his wife Christine’s wedding ring to pay for medical expenses and legal bills. To date, the Aardal’s still owe $45,000 in attorney fees.

“They can take a sick worker and completely cut off all of our pay, all of our health benefits to the point of basically being almost homeless,” said Christine Aardal. “It’s a perfect example of how they treat the workers and their families like dirt and could care less. They’re the cause of this. They’re the cause that our life is ruined. And they knew what they were doing.”

For 45 years Hanford was one of the most important factories in the country’s nuclear weapons program. Everyone knew radiation was a killer, but there was another hazard workers didn’t know about: the toxic metal Beryllium. Beryllium is an extremely durable and lightweight compound used in non-sparking tools and to cap nuclear fuel rods in the production of plutonium. When the metal is ground to dust, it spreads, making it easy for workers to inhale the known carcinogen.

“I can’t think of a metal that’s more toxic than beryllium,” said Dr. Lee Newman of the Center for Health, Work & Environment in the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus . Newman is considered the world’s leading expert on beryllium and CBD. “The amount of beryllium it takes to cause beryllium disease is a very minute amount. So if you’re not being as strict as possible in controlling the exposures, it’s, unfortunately, easy for someone to be overexposed.”

Beryllium cover-up

Records show that for years the federal government knowingly risked the lives of workers by allowing them to be over exposed to beryllium. A declassified report by a Hanford expert in 1953 detailed that even when “exposures have been low” it's led to “acute poisoning” and “fatalities.” But that information wasn’t shared with the workforce. It took more than four decades for the U.S. Department of Energy to admit the cover-up.

“I think it's one of the saddest chapters in this agency's history, because basically, the Department of Energy was saying our own workers have to produce nuclear weapons, but if there's any contamination, we have nothing to do with it,” said then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson in 2000. “Priority one was production of our nuclear weapons. As a last priority, was the safety and health of the workers that built these weapons."

The admission led to the federal government creating a code of federal regulations specifically for beryllium. The new rules made it mandatory for all nuclear weapons sites such as Hanford to test for beryllium and to protect workers from becoming poisoned from it.

“The responsible employer must develop a baseline inventory of the location of beryllium contamination, and identify the workers exposed or potentially exposed to beryllium in those locations,” wrote the regulation authors.

Hanford doesn’t follow regulations

But at Hanford officials did not follow the new regulations. The sampling to identify where the dangerous dust existed was flawed. In 2004, a Department of Energy review of Hanford’s beryllium program found the company hired to undertake testing proclaimed buildings clear of beryllium but “avoided the selection of locations likeliest to have (beryllium) contamination.” In addition, investigators found that the company hired by the government sampled with a detection limit that was “250 percent higher than the maximum” allowed by the federal code of regulations.

It took Hanford 10 years from the time the regulations came out to come up with a program that would protect workers. In that 10-year window, dozens of workers like Aardal were sent into harm’s way and came down with CBD.

In 2010 the Dept. of Energy found the Beryllium prevention program at Hanford still fraught with problems. An Independent Oversight Inspection of the Hanford Site Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program found that Hanford managers were still not following the rules set out a decade earlier. Several of the failures identified in the 2004 DOE report were still not addressed. The inspectors found these problem were most likely costing lives – the reason more people were contracting the life-threatening disease.

The program is “hindered by inadequacies in the direction provided by the Dept. of Energy (management teams) and the associated lack of clear planning,” wrote the inspectors.

“We were all deceived. It was production over safety,” said Aardal.

“This was like a death sentence to anyone who already had beryllium exposure and sensitization,” said state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle.

Pollet is the executive director of the advocacy group Heart of America Northwest, which was the first to sound the alarm that beryllium protocols were inadequate and unsafe. The group’s work led to the 2004 Department of Energy report.

“Some of the people who were involved in the decisions (in the early 2000s) are still senior managers at Hanford,” said Pollet. “Why did it take them a decade to rewrite the beryllium exposure program required by federal rules? (The procrastination) led to worker exposure and some of those people are going to be dying in the next few years as a result of beryllium disease.”

Living with chronic beryllium disease

Aardal is a former Marine and competitive athlete. But these days he has a difficult time getting out of bed. CBD has led to difficulty breathing, kidney failure, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, and debilitating nerve damage. In December he was diagnosed with colon and lung cancer as well.

“It’s a slow horrible death is what it brings,” said Christine Aardal. “They gave him a death penalty. He doesn’t want to exist anymore, because he’s in so much pain. He doesn’t want to be here, he doesn’t want to live the rest of his life in total pain.”

Aardal took his case all the way to the courthouse. He appealed his denial to the Washington State Board of Industrial Appeals. During the hearing in June 2013, a troubling fact came to light. Under oath, Hanford’s Site Occupational Medical Director, Dr. Karen Phillips, testified that a Department of Energy official, Juli Yamauchi, attempted to interfere with her medical decision making and authority.

“(She said) I couldn’t diagnose chronic beryllium disease,” said Phillips. “(I told her) I do have the ability to diagnose.”

Yamauchi’s boss, Doug Shoop of the Department of Energy, said that kind of interference wouldn’t be appropriate.

“I’m not sure we’re qualified to make those decisions, that’s why we have a site medical director,” said Shoop.

“She (Yamauchi) should be fired from her job,” said Dave Aardal. “Who is she to tell a medical doctor that she can’t diagnose or treat or anything of that sort? That’s not in her job description, she’s not a medical doctor.”

“They gave them a death penalty. (Beryllium workers are) all dying slowly and miserable and it doesn’t affect (the decision makers),” said Christine Aardal. “They carry on…they go on their vacations, it doesn’t affect them. Who holds them accountable? When does this end?”

In the end, Dave Aardal prevailed. Judge Bruce Ridley of the Board of Industrial Appeals ruled “(The denial) is reversed and the claim remanded with direction to allow the claim as an occupational disease of chronic beryllium disease.”

But Penser North America didn’t give up. They send Aardal to another independent medical examiner who agreed that yes, Aardal had CBD, but that he is “fixed and stable” and healthy enough to be employed as a security guard.

Despite the victory, Aardal’s claim for disability was denied.

The best estimates are that approximately 300 people have developed beryllium related conditions or full blown chronic beryllium disease from working at Hanford. More people continue to be diagnosed to this day.

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