Originally published September 19, 2018 at 11:50 am Updated September 19, 2018 at 6:12 pm
The federal government has agreed to test new “groundbreaking” technology to capture and destroy tank vapors, and install vapor monitoring to increase safety measures. Hanford, located in southeastern Washington, is the most seriously polluted nuclear site in North America.
By Evan Bush and Hal Bernton
Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Wednesday announced a settlement agreement with the federal government that is designed to keep workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation safe from exposure to harmful chemical vapors and fumes that have concerned workers for decades.
The agreement puts on hold a three-year-old lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, which was scheduled to go to trial next June.
Ferguson, who described a “culture of indifference to worker safety” at Hanford, said the deal could represent a turning point for workers at Hanford’s tank farms, where advocates say hundreds have been exposed to leaking vapors for decades. Some of the chemicals found in vapor include ammonia, nitrous oxide and dimethyl mercury, according to court documents.
“We’re finally moving towards a lasting solution,” Ferguson said, adding that the federal government had failed workers for years. “We should not have had to file a lawsuit. It shouldn’t have come to this.”
Abe Garza, an instrument technician who retired in 2016 after working for 34 years at Hanford in southeastern Washington, said he developed heart, lung and kidney problems after inhaling vapors there. He said he hoped the agreement would prevent other workers from having the health problems he attributes to working at Hanford.
“It’s time the Department of Energy faced up to the fact people are getting sick, instead of trying to deny it,” Garza said, his voice raspy, he noted, from the effects of the chemicals.
Garza said he was optimistic the agreement would protect workers, but it was a feeling tempered by what he said was years of government inaction.
“Time will tell how good it is,” he said. “I don’t trust them.”