In the toughest stance ever taken by the state of Washington to protect workers at the Hanford Site, Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a suit Wednesday against the U.S. Department of Energy and Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS).
The lawsuit alleges that the Energy Department and WRPS, the private contractor that manages the storage tanks holding millions of gallons of radioactive sludge, are endangering Hanford workers by not protecting them from chemical vapors that frequently vent into the air without warning.
"The health and safety of state citizens and residents working at the Hanford site are threatened by Defendants' storage, handling, and treatment of hazardous and mixed hazardous wastes in violation of (federal law) and the state Hazardous Waste Management Act," Ferguson wrote in the suit.
The federal government produced plutonium for the country's nuclear weapons program at Hanford, near Richland, from 1943 to 1987. Since production ended, Energy has been tasked with cleaning up the waste left behind, including 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemically contaminated waste. The vapors escape from tanks holding this liquid waste.
Wednesday's legal action comes after the KING 5 Investigators documented more than 50 incidents of workers getting exposed to harmful chemical vapors since March 2014. Just last month, a maintenance worker was exposed to vapors while working in the SY tank farm, which is in an area where vapors are supposed to be under control and workers are not required to wear respiratory equipment.
The worker was not wearing any protection when he was exposed to the fumes. He was taken to the hospital but continues to suffer nose bleeds, chest pains and difficulty breathing.
For decades, the federal government and its contractors have documented the need for improvements in protecting workers from vapors. But incidents continue.
"Energy has known about the problem of worker vapor exposures since the late 1980s," wrote Ferguson in the complaint. "More than a decade after the issuance of (a report on the issue released in 2004) tank vapor exposure events continue to endanger workers in the tank farm areas…..the problem of worker safety in the tank farm areas has not been solved."\
The suit also outlines the serious health hazards associates with exposure to chemical vapors: "Potential health effects from exposures to these chemicals can include….asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, central nervous system suppression…and cancers of the liver, lung, blood and other organ systems."
The federal government was warned by the state of Washington on November 19, 2014, that a lawsuit could be filed if improvements were not made to the satisfaction of the state.
The suit filed today in U.S. District Court a judgment to force the defendants to "take all such actions necessary to eliminate any present and future endangerment associated with vapor releases at the Hanford tank farms."
This is the first time in state history that the state has filed suit against the federal government on behalf of the workforce at Hanford.