After a 33 year career at Hanford working in the tank farms, Abe Garza of Richland is off the job and he’ll never work again. He has permanent lung damage and brain damage from exposure to toxic chemical vapors at the jobsite. On some days the gasping for air and coughing is so violent he passes out.
“It feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest,” said Garza.
The damage to his brain has left him unable to drive and remember simple tasks. Once an avid reader of classic novels and books on mathematics, it’s now difficult for Garza to read any kind of material. According to his wife, the chemical exposures have turned their lives upside down.
“(It’s) devastate our lives,” said Garza’s wife, Bertolla Bugarin.
Garza is one of an unknown number of current and former Hanford workers who suffer debilitating health effects because of a decades old problem of chemical vapors venting from underground nuclear waste tanks at the former plutonium production facility. Since April 28, 51 workers, a record number, have suspected they’ve been exposed to vapors. Some are still too sick to return to work, mostly due to breathing problems.
Despite findings by doctors that workers such as Abe Garza are sick as a direct result of exposure to chemical vapors, top managers from the U.S. Dept. of Energy, which owns Hanford, and its contractor in charge of the tank farms, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), report their testing of the airspace after exposures always shows very small amounts of chemical concentrations.
There’s one chemical compound in the waste at Hanford that’s particularly lethal. Dimethylmercury is so toxic there are no safe amounts tolerated in the state of Washington. In 1997 Dartmouth College Chemistry Professor Karen Wetterhahn died 10 months after two tiny drops of dimethylmercury fell onto her gloved hand.
“Dimethylmercury is probably one of the most insidious, most dangerous compounds that could be in the breathing environment anywhere,” said Dr. Marco Kaltofen, an affiliate research engineer with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Program. Kaltofen is also a Hanford expert.
Dimethylmercury has been detected at Hanford. In 2004 a tank farm manager wrote C-farm tanks were definitely exceeding safe limits for mercury, and that could be an indicator of excessive amounts of dimethylmercury. “Approximately 7 C-Farm tanks have indications of headspace or breather filter data in excess of the mercury vapor TLV’s (Threshold Limit Values) If all this mercury was present as dimethylmercury (unlikely, but conservative): a total of 9 C-farm tanks would exceed the dimethylmercury vapor TLV’s,” wrote Jim Honeyman of CH2M Hill.
That prompted the government contractor CH2M Hill to add dimethylmercury to the list of chemicals of concern to monitor at the site.
But that changed in 2008 when the Energy Department changed contractors – from CH2M Hill to WRPS. KING has obtained a document showing after WRPS took over operations, dimethylmercury was taken off the list of chemicals to be concerned about and the company quit monitoring for levels that would be harmful to human health.
As recently as 2015, WRPS was monitoring for dimethylmercury, not for concentrations harmful to the workforce, but for a different set of environmental standards as per the state’s Clean Air Act. On December 15, 2015 WRPS alerted the Washington state Department of Ecology that technicians found dimethylmercury emissions “exceeding (state) permit limits.” The measurements were found in the AY/AZ double shell tank farm.
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