AG: “Culture of indifference to worker safety must end”
OLYMPIA — In the aftermath of more than 50 workers exposed to toxic vapors at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Hanford Challenge and a Hanford union today asked a federal court to immediately order the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), to implement enhanced safety and vapor monitoring measures.
Despite decades of knowing about the vapor problem, numerous reports outlining the issue, and the State of Washington’s lawsuit highlighting worker safety problems at Hanford, Energy and WRPS actually reduced worker safety measures such as supplied air since the lawsuit’s filing last September.
“I’ve been asking for months: How many sick Washington workers will it take before the federal government fixes this problem?” Ferguson said. “The federal government’s culture of indifference to worker safety at Hanford must end. Now.”
"We are acting today to protect the Hanford workforce and end exposures to toxic chemical vapors at Hanford. Too many workers have already gotten sick and even disabled by brain and lung diseases. Hanford's cleanup mission will last decades, and workers deserve a safe workplace now and into the future,” said Tom Carpenter, Executive Director of Hanford Challenge.
The Attorney General filed a motion for preliminary injunction in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. The state filed its lawsuit against the federal government over Hanford worker safety in September 2015. Hanford Challenge, an advocacy group promoting worker health and safety, and UA Local 598, filed a similar motion in its own worker safety lawsuit.
A trial before Judge Thomas Rice is set for May 22, 2017, but workers cannot wait that long to have a safe workplace. By pursuing a preliminary injunction, the Attorney General and Hanford Challenge seek to prevent further harm to Hanford workers by implementing certain protections now, instead of waiting for the outcome of the trial. If successful, these enhanced protections would remain in place until the trial.
The parties are all asking the court for the following immediate relief:
- Mandatory use of supplied air at all times for all personnel working within the perimeter fence lines of the tank farms;
- During waste disturbing activities, establishment of an expanded vapor control zone not less than 200 feet outside the perimeter fence line of the affected tank farms, and effective barricading of all roads and access points to prevent entry into the expanded zone;
- Mandatory use of supplied air for all personnel working inside a vapor control zone, including the expanded zone described above; and
- Installation and use of additional monitoring and alarming equipment in affected tank farms during waste disturbing activities, to include optical gas imaging cameras, optical spectrometers, optical stack monitors, and VMD integration software, to warn workers when toxic vapors are being emitted.
From the state’s brief:
“This year’s exposures are far from isolated events. For decades, workers have gotten sick from inhaling poisons from the tank farms. Energy has studied the problem over, and over, and over. Each study it has commissioned since 1992 included recommendations for protecting workers from chemical vapors. But the recommendations have not been adequately implemented, little has changed, and workers continue to get sick. Preliminary injunctive relief is needed to break this pattern now, until a full adjudication of the State’s claim can be made."
Judge Rice will rule on the motion after Energy and WRPS file their response briefs, and may set oral argument before making his decision.
Hanford Challenge and UA Local 598 are represented by the Smith and Lowney firm, Terrell Marshall Law Group, both based in Seattle, and Public Justice, a national public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C.
Hanford’s 177 underground storage tanks contain more than 50 million gallons of toxic waste, the byproducts of decades of plutonium production.
Over a span of just a few days in late April and early May 2016, at least 48 Hanford tank farm workers were exposed to vapors emitted from the tanks, with 56 exposed by the end of June. Within minutes to hours of breathing in these toxic fumes, workers experienced nosebleeds, chest and lung pain, headaches, coughing, sore throats, irritated eyes, and difficulty breathing.
The long term effects of these exposures are not yet fully known, but past vapor exposures from the tank farms have caused permanent lung damage and brain damage in workers, among other debilitating conditions.
Hundreds of workers have been similarly exposed since the early 1980s. Since that time, at least 19 reports have been issued about tank vapors and exposures, yet workers continue to get sick.
The Department of Energy’s own study, the Tank Vapors Assessment Team Report, completed just 18 months ago, again warned that not enough was being done to protect workers from harm. Yet instead of fully implementing its own recommendations from the report, Energy and WRPS reduced safety measures at the tank farms, including reductions in the use of supplied air.
The latest round of exposures came after these safety reductions.
Additional documents related to today’s filing will be uploaded here as they are filed with the court today.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Peter Lavallee, Communications Director, (360) 586-0725; PeterL@atg.wa.gov
Tom Carpenter, Hanford Challenge, (206) 419-5829
Randy Walli, Local 598, (509) 551-3497