Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Wednesday filed an emergency legal motion to force improvements in worker safety at the Hanford Site, the 586-square-mile former plutonium production facility.
Ferguson called the action "as serious as it gets."
The motion for injunctive relief asks a federal judge intervene in the operations at the site to protect workers from continued exposure to toxic chemical vapors. It names as defendants the U.S. Department of Energy and Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), the private company that manages the nuclear waste storage tanks at Hanford.
In legal proceedings, an injunction is considered an extraordinary remedy, reserved only for the most extreme situations.
“At Hanford there’s a culture of indifference by the federal government and their contractors. Frankly, we’re not going to put up with it anymore,” said Ferguson. “So right now we’re trying to get before the judge immediately asking for immediate steps required from the federal government to protect workers. That’s the bottom line.”
The move follows a three-month period during which nearly 60 workers were exposed to suspected chemical vapors at Hanford. Some workers were evaluated at hospitals in the Tri-Cities and at Harborview in Seattle and remain too sick to work. Others sought medical evaluation at Hanford’s onsite medical clinic after experiencing symptoms including nose bleeds, dizziness, headaches, difficulty breathing and a metallic taste.
“The State of Washington moves the Court for a preliminary injunction to require the Defendants to do what their own panel of experts has already advised is necessary to protect Hanford’s workers form the potentially devastating effects of chemical vapor exposures. The State strongly believes and history confirms, that in the absence of injunctive relief additional workers will be harmed before the Court is able to fully adjudicate the matter at trial,” wrote Ferguson in the motion.
Monday afternoon a spokesperson for the government contractor in charge of the nuclear waste tanks sent a statement about the motion.
"Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) is committed to the safety and health of our workers. WRPS is disappointed by the actions taken today by the Washington State Attorney General. We believe the claims are not reflective of the safe work our team is accomplishing in the tank farms’ challenging environment.
While we review the motion, we will work with the Department of Energy on an appropriate path forward."
The state is taking the emergency action after filing a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the federal government and WRPS in 2015 for allegedly violating state and federal regulations by knowingly putting workers in harm’s way of toxic chemical vapors. Trial is set for next May.
Studies dating back to 1992, many of them produced by Department of Energy scientists, are critical of Hanford’s vapor protection program and warn of a causal link between exposure to vapors and adverse health effects. Despite recommendations and warnings by their own experts, Hanford managers continue downplay the problem and instead repeatedly give the message that they never measure chemical vapors above the acceptable occupational limits, which means the workers are safe.
After a rash of exposures in 2014 brought to light by the KING 5 Investigators, one top Hanford official told the media no evidence of vapor exposures existed.
“By every indication we have, our workers are not exposed to any vapors,” said Bob Wilkinson at the time. Wilkinson, who was the WRPS manager of environment, safety, health and quality at WRPS in 2014, currently works as chief operations officer for another Hanford contractor, Mission Support Alliance.
Ferguson said given all these factors, his office isn’t willing to wait for the 2017 trial date.
“They refuse to acknowledge in my view the serious situation that they have and that they have workers continue to get sick and in some cases very sick….These problems need to be fixed yesterday. And the federal government knows what they can do to fix it. Their own reports tell them what they need to do to fix it and it’s frankly maddening that they refuse to do it,” said Ferguson. “In fact, since we filed our lawsuit they’ve actually reduced worker protection. If that’s not a culture of indifference, I don’t know what is.”
Workers sick from vapor exposures applauded the move by the state.
“I’m very thankful that this is happening, it’s just unfortunate that it’s taken so many sick workers for action to finally take place,” said Seth Ellingsworth.
Ellingsworth, 35, was exposed to vapors while monitoring for radiation at the site on August 31, 2015. He hasn’t worked since due to severe breathing difficulties. He takes several medications and nebulizer treatments to open up his lungs. He was an avid weightlifter, runner, snowboarder and active father.
“Hanford has ruined my life…I’m 35 and I act like somebody who is in their 80’s or 90’s. My physical abilities are so limited. It’s not right,” said Ellingsworth.
The problems facing Hanford workers today stem back to the 1940s when neary 600 square miles of land along the Columbia River near Richland was chosen by the federal government to be a crucial part of the secret Manhattan Project. It was at Hanford that plutonium was produced to fuel the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. Production of plutonium continued into the late 1980s as the country stockpiled its nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War.
Nearly five decades of plutonium production left behind a toxic legacy – 56 million gallons of liquid nuclear waste stored in 177 aging underground tanks. Now, workers engage in cleanup activities only, including managing the toxic cocktail of radioactive isotopes and dangerous chemicals buried in the tanks. As the waste ages, decays, and is moved from leaking tanks to sturdier vessels, the chemicals spontaneously vent into the breathing space of workers. Some of the chemicals and heavy metals identified include mercury, strontium 90, cesium, furan, ammonia, and the deadly dimethymercury.
The citizen watchdog group Hanford Challenge, along with the Local 598 Pipefitters Union, also filed a motion for injunctive relief on Thursday. They too are asking Chief Judge Thomas O. Rice of the Eastern U.S. District Court to intervene.
“This absolutely is a crisis,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge. “It’s really an experiment on these workers to see which ones will develop permanent illnesses or impairment or disabilities. So yeah, it’s a crisis and it has to be stopped. We have to protect these workers as soon as possible.”
Specifically, all three plaintiffs, the state of Washington, Hanford Challenge and Local 598 Pipefitters are asking the judge to institute the following on an interim basis, pending trial:
1. (Require) Mandatory use of supplied air at all times for all personne4l working within the perimeter fence lines of the tank farms.
2. During waste-disturbing activities, establishment of an expanded vapor control zone not less than 200 feet outside the perimeter fence line of the affected tank farms, and effective barricading of all roads and access points to prevent entry into the expanded zone.”
3. Mandatory use of supplied air for all personnel working inside a vapor control zone, including the expanded zone described above.
4. Installation and use of monitoring and alarming equipment in affected tank farms during waste-disturbing activities, to include optical gas-imaging cameras, optical spectrometers, optical stack monitors and VMD integration software, to effectively and actually warn workers when toxic vapors are emitted.
“My team understands clearly, we will be relentless about this. We’ll use every tool we have and I’m confident in the end, they will be held accountable,” said Ferguson.
Ellingsworth said more people in positions of power need to take action to help the Hanford workforce.
“The people in power are finally listening. But we need more than Bob Ferguson. We need congress to get involved. Where’s Patty Murray? Where’s Maria Cantwell on this? Why are they ignoring us at the Hanford site?" he said.
Ferguson said a judge typicall responds within a few days after a motion for injunctive relief is filed. Judge Rice could make a ruling based on the written motions, or he could schedule a hearing for oral arguments within weeks or even days. A hearing would most likely take place in Spokane at the Eastern District federal courthouse.
-- Follow Susannah Frame on Twitter: @SFrameK5.