Workers at the Hanford Site near the Tri-Cities are demanding change after a record number of people have sought medical attention and made trips to the hospital after exposure to suspected chemical vapors on the job.
The most recent event occurred on May 18 as two maintenance workers outside of AY tank farm reported “odor concerns” and were transported to the onsite medical clinic. This brings the number of workers who believe they’ve been exposed to toxic gasses since April 28 to 50.
Symptoms described by victims include burning throat and nose, headache, dizziness, high blood pressure, difficulty breathing, nausea and a metallic taste in the mouth. The concern is that the exposures will lead to lasting negative health impacts.
Related stories: What is Hanford?
“How many people have to be exposed? How many people have to get sick and end up like me?” said Seth Ellingsworth, a 35-year-old Hanford worker who has been sick and off the job with serious breathing difficulties since being exposed to unknown chemical vapors on August 31, 2015. “It shouldn’t have happened to me. It shouldn’t be happening to anybody.”
This historic rash of vapor incidents comes on the heels of a comprehensive study produced by a team of national experts released in 2014 that put the US Department of Energy, which owns Hanford, and its contractor in charge of the tank farms, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), on notice that they had a flawed vapor program that lacked the ability to “effectively control, mitigate, or respond” to vapors at the site. The Savannah River National Laboratory’s Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report was funded by the Dept. of Energy and cost $2 million.
The panel found that for years, inadequate detection and testing systems have been used and that despite findings by WRPS that “workplace monitoring consistently shows vapor levels well below existing occupational exposure limits”, that even short exposures can be devastating to workers. “The evidence strongly suggests a causal link between chemical vapor releases and subsequent health effects,” and that even “brief but intense exposures” can be harmful.
The exposure suffered by Seth Ellingsworth occurred ten months after the release of the Savannah River report and promises by WRPS executives that the 153-page document gave them a roadmap to “enhance protection for Hanford’s tank farm workers.”
“There’s somebody making the decisions that our lives are not as important as theirs. It doesn’t matter if we get sick…We’re not the highly educated managers making the big pay, so we don’t matter,” said Ellingsworth.
A 12-year Hanford employee, Ellingsworth was carrying out routine work monitoring for radiation on August 31, 2015, just outside of the C Tank Farm. He started smelling something suspicious. He left the area, but felt symptoms immediately.
“It got really strong, kind of overwhelming,” said Ellingsworth. “I started having breathing problems the same day.”
Since then Ellingsworth has been to six different doctors, both in the Tri-Cities and in Seattle. He’s scheduled to see specialists in Colorado in the coming weeks to try to obtain a diagnosis. Tests soon after the exposure produced worrisome results. High levels of toxic material were found in his blood and urine: cesium, a radioactive isotope, mercury and thallium, a suspected human carcinogen.
Ellingsworth’s physical condition has worsened over time. Nine months after the exposure he cannot take part in regular activities such as roughhousing with his kids or yard work. If he does, he’s out of breath and reaching for his nebulizer or rescue inhaler to open up his lungs.
“I’ve just been fighting. Getting worse, getting better, getting worse, getting better, to the point where I thought I was dying,” said Ellingsworth. “When you can’t breathe and every day you fight just to get air, it’s one of the worst experiences. I’d give up an arm, I’d give up a leg to be able to breathe.”
Once a dedicated weight lifter, runner, snow boarder and active father, Ellingsworth can no longer participate in sports or work of any kind. He spends his days giving himself nebulizer treatments and taking seven different medications, none of which he took before the exposure last August.
“If you want to know what it feels like, blow out all the air that you can and then have a 200-pound man stand on your chest. And not get off you,” said Ellingsworth. “I’m 35 and I act like somebody’s who’s in their 80s or 90s – my physical abilities are so limited. It’s not right.”
Lack of information
With 12 years on the job and parents who both have careers at Hanford, Ellingsworth did not know about the potentially harmful effects of chemical vapors at work until he fell victim. His employer, WRPS, holds annual four-hour chemical hazardous training sessions, but the curriculum skips over many substantial details of the dangers of chemical vapors, instead emphasizing the protections.
Authors of the training manual wrote: “Based on results from thousands of air sampling and monitoring events over the past 8 years, workplace exposures to tank farm chemical vapors are below the OEL (occupational exposure limit, which is an upper limit on the acceptable concentration of a hazardous substance in workplace air)…and that “appropriate controls are in place for waste-disturbing and non-waste disturbing activities.”
The manual authors go on to state:
“Odors do occur in the tank farms. Chemicals associated with odor events have been identified. While the concentrations are above the respective odor threshold, they below their respective OEL.”
“When you’re told all that matters is your safety. And that we’re not exposing you to anything and we’re being safe. Your health is important. You believe them.”
The training does not mention the 20-plus scientific studies going back to 1992, many of them authored by the Department of Energy itself, that find chemical vapors are not in check at Hanford. A report by a federally funded laboratory in 1997 found exposures can cause cancer and other chronic diseases, from even brief but intense exposures. That study was never published. The results were not shared with the workforce, the public, or a federally charted advisory board charged with giving advice on issues such as this at the site.
“They continue to deny what’s happening,” said Ellingsworth. “The management who expects us to continue working and denies that anyone gets sick. I blame them all. I want them all to be held accountable.”
The Department of Energy’s contractor also does not mention the long list of workers who are sick, suffering and have even died from exposure to chemical vapors. In the KING 5 2014 series, “The Human Toll of Hanford’s Dirty Secrets," several people were profiled with permanent and debilitating illnesses from chemical vapors. They include John Swain and Dale Geer, who both suffer from permanent brain damage, Diana Gegg, who has dementia, vision loss and a host of other problems, Lonnie Poteet who suffers from painful facial nerve damage, Don Slaugh, who has permanent lung damage, Ron Stevens, who suffers from kidney failure and had throat cancer, and Gary Sall, who died from chronic exposure to toxins at the site.
“How can they explain to us that they knew about the sick workers from the past and didn’t share that with any of us, and didn’t do anything to stop it from happening to anybody else?” said Ellingsworth. "(I had to find out from KING 5) stories, getting on the KING 5 website. I didn’t know about them at all… How can you continue to do this? How as a person can you do this to other people? It shouldn’t happen to anybody and it shouldn’t happen to anybody else.”
Lack of Protection
Experts who authored many of the studies on Hanford vapors dating back to 1992 gave the same piece of advice over and over – that the only sure fire way to protect workers from exposures is to have them wear full respiratory protective gear, including supplied air in tanks, similar to what firefighters wear. Currently WRPS has made it mandatory for workers to wear supplied air in the single-shell tank farms where much of the waste disturbing activity is taking place. Anytime waste is pumped, transferred, or otherwise disturbed it becomes more volatile and more likely to emit chemical vapors.
But in the double-shell tank farms and in areas right outside of the farms donning supplied air is voluntary. In March, for the first time, WRPS began pumping waste out of the leaking double-shell tank known as AY-102. And after that began, the rrash of exposures followed. Of the 50 suspected exposures, the majority happened outside of zones where protection of any kind is required.
That was the situation when Seth Ellingsworth was exposed in August. He was right outside of the area where protection is required in the C-Farm. After getting hit with the vapors he said he asked his managers what chemicals were recorded from samples taken in that area. Ellingsworth said he was told no sampling was undertaken because they “suspected odors that day”.
“This all could have been prevented by just wearing a mask. They expected to find odors in that area, (but) they didn’t tell me ahead of time. It’s not something they shared,” said Ellingsworth. “It shouldn’t have happened to me.”
Ellingsworth and other workers who spoke with KING for this report said money trumps safety and humanity at Hanford. Wearing supplied air slows down work and costs more to get jobs done.
In the time period of Ellingsworth's exposure, the Department of Energy awarded WRPS award fees of more than $13.7 million. The company received a “very good” rating for their safety program.
“These people that send us into harm’s way that expose us and make us sick, do they go home and answer to their families? Do they go home and tell their families that they sent three people to the hospital? That they ruined someone’s lungs? That people that work under them have toxic damage? Just so they could have a good life? I want to know if they tell their families that,” said Ellingsworth.
As for his prognosis, Ellingsworth isn’t holding out a lot of hope.
“I’m running out of hope actually. I don’t know if I’m going to get better. I don’t know," he said. "After talking to other people who have sicknesses similar to mine, it actually takes a lot of my hope away because they’re not getting better.”
Ellingsworth is one of very few current Hanford workers willing to speak on camera or on the record about chemical vapors. Historically, workers have worried about retaliation for bringing problems to the forefront. Ellingsworth said his health, and the health of his co-workers is more important than protecting his employment. He said he’s not giving up until change takes place.
“There’s no amount of money that’s going to keep me quiet and let this happen to other people. I don’t want anyone to end up like me.”
Related stories: What is Hanford?
KING 5 sent a detailed email with several questions to WRPS and The Dept. of Energy. Neither answered the questions, but they offered these statements:
Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) is committed to operating a safe workplace.
Extensive workplace monitoring consistently shows vapor levels well below existing occupational exposure limits for worker exposure to chemical vapors.
WRPS takes worker concerns associated with chemical vapors very seriously, and has taken further measures to strengthen its chemical vapors program. These steps include increased respiratory protection requirements for its workers and additional engineered controls and monitoring, and testing of a mobile laboratory to conduct in-field sampling using mass spectroscopy equipment.
Dept. of Energy Statement:
The Department of Energy remains committed to the health and safety of its workforce, and does not take lightly workers’ concerns for their safety. While chemical vapor sampling and monitoring results indicate levels well below occupational exposure limits, the Department and its tank operations contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, have taken steps to further strengthen chemical vapor monitoring and detection capabilities. These steps include the implementation of a mobile laboratory with real time monitoring that includes sampling and detection capabilities. This mobile laboratory adds significant monitoring capability to the site. The Department remains committed to protecting the health and safety of the workforce, and reducing the potential for chemical vapor exposure to as low as reasonably achievable.