SPOKANE -- A federal judge on Wednesday said he will decide "as promptly as possible” whether or not to order stricter measures to protect workers at the Hanford Site, the vast government reservation in southeastern Washington that is home to millions of gallons of highly toxic and radioactive waste.
The comments from U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice came after the first-ever federal court hearing regarding a request for emergency legal action to protect worker health and safety at the former nuclear weapons production site.
The state wants the court to order the Energy Department and a private contractor to take steps to protect workers from toxic chemical vapors emitted from underground nuclear storage tanks.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, along with the citizen watchdog group Hanford Challenge and the pipefitters union, filed the emergency motion in July after more than 50 workers suffered symptoms of exposure to noxious gases at the site over a three-month period. Ferguson asked the federal judge to intervene immediately to prevent more people from getting sick.
In Judge Rice's courtroom Wednesday, the plaintiffs said the federal government refuses to admit there is a vapor problem and that the only way to get Hanford managers to do the right thing is by court intervention.
Lawyers for the Energy Department and Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) argued there is no proof that workers have gotten sick from vapors. They contend that workers' symptoms -- nose bleeds, dizziness, headache, breathing difficulties, vomiting and a metallic taste in the mouth -- could be from the common cold, allergies, gum disease or a nicotine patch.
Approximately 10 current and former Hanford workers, many of whom have been featured in the KING 5 investigative series, “The Human Toll of Hanford’s Dirty Secrets," attended the hearing. All of them have suffered acute adverse health effects due to exposure to chemical vapors at the Hanford tank farms, including dementia, painful nerve damage, and lung damage.
“It made me just so angry that they’re telling me that I’m not sick, that this is just a coincidence - anything but where I worked caused it,” said Seth Ellingsworth.
Ellingsworth hasn’t worked in over a year after an exposure to chemical vapors led to life altering breathing problems. At 35 years of age, he can barely walk around the block without having to stop to catch his breath.
Ellingsworth and the other workers in attendance said getting their moment in front of a judge, finally, gives them hope.
“Today is a good thing,” said Ellingsworth. “I’m very excited that this could make a difference. If the judge rules in favor of us, as he should, then this is a huge success in favor of worker safety.”
KING 5 attempted to speak with Hanford’s top Department of Energy official, Kevin Smith, who was in the courtroom taking detailed notes. Smith exited the court building through a side door not available to the general public.
Courtroom sketches for this report by Megan Perkins