Workers at a nuclear waste cleanup project in the state of Washington stopped work on July 11 after the private contractor managing the clean up of the Hanford Site, a former plutonium processing facility, refused their demand for additional safety equipment.
Dave Molnaa, president of the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, a partnership of 15 unions working at Hanford, issued an unprecedented stop work order after Washington River Protections Solutions (WRPS), the cleanup contractor, ignored HAMTC’s demand that the company supply respirators connected to air supply tanks to everyone working at the site’s tank farms, 177 underground tanks that store millions of gallons of radioactive liquid left over from the time when Hanover was processing plutonium.
“We’ll do the work,” said Molnaa as he explained the stop work order to KDNO News. “But I simply demand that they don’t kill (the workers).”
Hanford is located in Benton County, near the town of Richland in Eastern Washington.
Hanford stopped processing plutonium in 1989, and after that a massive project was undertaken to clean up the dangerous residue left behind, including contaminated water, equipment, and other radioactive waste.
The US Department of Energy oversees the cleanup project and has contracted with WRPS to mange it.
Hanford’s underground storage tanks require maintenance, repair, and monitoring to make sure that the water does not leak into the environment.
As long as the project has been in progress workers have complained about the health risks associated with working so close to such toxic material.
According to Washington state attorney general Bob Ferguson, who has sued DOE and WRPS over health and safety issues at Hanford, hundreds of workers over the last 20 years have experienced a wide range of illnesses from nose bleeds to permanent loss of lung capacity after being exposed to chemical vapors at Hanford.
Ferguson also said that some of the chemicals found in the tanks are known carcinogens and others have been linked to nervous disorders.
Most of the tanks at the tank farms are single-walled tanks, some of which have a history of leaks.
Workers working near these tanks wear air respirators connected to an air supply.
Twenty-eight double-walled tanks have been installed to provide greater protection, but workers working near the double-walled tanks are not issued respirators with air supplies.
During the last few months, more than 50 Hanford workers have sought medical treatment after they were exposed to chemical vapors on the job.
That led HAMTC to send a letter to WRPS demanding that the company agree to a list of safety improvements.
The company agreed to some of the demands but refused the demand to provide respirators for all work at the tank farms, including work at or near the double-walled tanks.
That refusal resulted in the stop work order.
“The only solution to my stop work order is to put people in supplied air at any tank farm including the double-shelled tanks.” said Molnaa.
One of the reasons that WRPS may be reluctant to provide respirators with air supplies to all workers is that WRPS and the Energy Department are under a court ordered deadline to cleanup the toxic mess at Hanford, and the tanks that supply air to respirators are heavy, which slows down production.
The Energy Department and WRPS have downplayed the health risks posed by the chemical vapors at Hanford, but a study commissioned by the department states that the risks are real.
Attorney General Ferguson cited that study in the suit he filed last against DOE and WRPS about safety problems at Hanford.
In his pleading, Ferguson quoted from that the commission’s report which said that its data “strongly suggests a causal link between chemical vapor release and subsequent adverse health effects experienced by tank farm workers.”
“Hundreds of workers have fallen sick after vapor exposure, experiencing nosebleeds, headaches, watery eyes, burning skin, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, dizziness and nausea. Some workers have suffered long-term disabilities, including the permanent loss of lung capacity,” states a media release issued by Ferguson about the suit.
“For years, Washington workers have been exposed to noxious fumes and chemical vapors as they clean up the federal government’s nuclear site at Hanford,” said Ferguson in his media release. “Enough is enough. The health risks are real.”