Hanford Challenge Blasts Contractor-Led Study on Chemical Vapors

Seattle, WA -- Hanford Challenge is today expressing strong opposition to a hastily concocted plan -- announced last Friday -- to bring in one U.S. Department of Energy contractor to examine the safety performance of another. The study in question is crucial to the future safety of Hanford radioactive waste tank farm workers, more than two dozen of whom were exposed in March to dangerous chemical vapors released from underground storage tanks.

On Friday, April 25, the Savannah River National Laboratory issued a press release announcing that it had been contracted by WRPS, the Hanford tank farms contractor, to undertake an “independent, expert study” of the vapor situation at Hanford. The study was dismissed by Hanford Challenge as lacking independence and providing too narrow of a scope that left out important areas to examine, including the medical response to chemical vapor exposures.

“We’re not the only ones who were blind-sided by last Friday’s announcement,” said Hanford Challenge Executive Director, Tom Carpenter. “The recent unacceptable worker exposures clearly require a credible, independent review. Bringing in DOE’s Savannah River National Laboratory is transparently self-serving and lacks all credibility. Hanford workers and federal taxpayers deserve a timely, credible review. And this isn’t it.”

The tank vapor exposures have become a chronic safety problem over the past two decades as Hanford contractors work to consolidate millions of gallons of extremely dangerous mixtures so the wastes--the byproducts of decades of plutonium production-- can be processed for long-term geologic disposal at the site’s Waste Treatment Plant.

In response to earlier clusters of vapor exposures, Hanford tank farm contractors and Hanford Challenge have worked together through the independent Hanford Concerns Council to produce independent and credible industrial hygiene reviews and responses. Reports were issued in 2008 and 2010, after months of investigation and inquiry and some steps were taken by the contractor to address existing shortcomings.

Carpenter charges that the Department of Energy and WRPS are motivated financially by getting work done quickly, and are under new pressure from the State of Washington, which has
recently imposed a new Order on Hanford to empty a failed double-shell tank. Washington State is also seeking to amend an existing Consent Decree which would also impose stricter accountability for deadlines to empty Hanford’s failing waste tanks. Past tank pumping campaigns were done “recklessly”, according to Carpenter, and “resulted in the contractor taking
shortcuts on worker health and safety, including, failing to implement recommendations for
protecting workers against chemical vapor exposures.”

Carpenter also issued a caution to site workers about cooperating with the contractor’s study, given DOE and the contractor's past history of retaliation against workers who raise concerns or get sick. “There are no effective safeguards for Hanford workers to speak freely about their concerns, even high-level managers have been targeted after they raised legitimate and validated safety issues. DOE has not acted to protect, or even protest, the retaliation against workers who have spoken out about safety.”

“The repeated failures to do anything meaningful to protect workers is tragic, and has resulted in numerous, preventable exposures that have led to serious and long-term health effects for some workers,” said Carpenter. A 1992 review by a former OSHA Director, published in a DOE publication (Hazards Ahead, p. 55) wrote:

“The failure of those in responsible management charge to assign resources to this problem in the presence of repeated violations would, without any doubt, have been viewed by OSHA as willful violations of the [Occupational Safety and Health] Act and subject to possible criminal penalties. This conclusion would probably have been reached by the end of 1987 when three [worker exposure] episodes had occurred, but certainly by 1989 when the episodes reoccurred. The absence of high priority for solving this problem in 1990, with attendant lack of professional staff and resources could well put someone on trial for criminal behavior [had the occurrences been subject to OSHA enforcement and penalties]. Also, in 1989 with the reoccurrence of the episode, [an OSHA finding of] “imminent danger” and a series of restrictive procedures akin to closure of a manufacturing facility probably would have been invoked.”

Subsequent memos and reviews since then, in 1997, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010, all found the same appalling lack of a systemic and effective approach to protecting workers. “The cycle must end,” said Carpenter. “First and foremost, the exposures to unknown and unknowable chemical vapors must end. That means greater use of supplied air, as over a dozen expert reviews and reports have recommended since 1992, and other engineered control methods such as the use of charcoal scrubbers to capture chemicals, and higher stacks to displace the chemical vapors away from the workers.”

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