Elaine Thompson / AP

Washington sues Feds over safety of Hanford nuclear waste tanks

Lawsuit alleges Department of Energy knew about vapors sickening site workers since 1980s but failed to fix problem

The U.S. government has failed to adequately safeguard crews involved in the decades-long cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, leaving workers sickened by exposure to toxic vapors, the state alleged in a lawsuit filed on Wednesday.

The 18-page complaint, filed in federal court in Spokane, cited more than 50 instances since January 2014 of cleanup workers being exposed to hazardous fumes at the sprawling World War II-era site along the Columbia River.

One worker was treated last year for chemical pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs caused by chemical exposure, the complaint said. Since spring 2014, over 50 Hanford workers have received medical evaluations for possible exposure to vapors, local news website, Tri-City Herald, reported Wednesday.

"Enough is enough. The health risks are real, and the state is taking action today to ensure the federal government protects these workers now and in the future," said state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Hanford, which covers 586 square miles in southeastern Washington, produced plutonium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program from 1943 to 1987. It now ranks as one of the most contaminated sites in North America.

Cleanup began at Hanford in 1989 and is projected to cost almost $115 billion by century's end, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Hanford was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government program that developed the first atomic bombs.

The U.S. Department of Energy did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.

The main activity there now is the removal of 56 million gallons of hazardous waste, much of it radioactive. The waste is kept in 177 underground storage tanks, a number of them with known leaks. The U.S. Department of Energy, which owns Hanford, is responsible for cleanup at the site, including the hiring of contractors and workers to extract the waste from tanks for safe disposal.

As a result of lax safety practices amid leaks and releases of toxic vapors in the vicinity of the storage tanks, workers have been continually put at risk and made ill from chemical exposure, according to the lawsuit.

Ferguson announced last November he intended to sue the federal government. In June, the attorney general said he would oppose a U.S. Department of Energy request to have more time to empty the next group of Hanford's water-storage tanks. 

Federal officials wanted a one-year extension on its deadline to retrieve radioactive waste from nine leak-prone tanks, giving them until to fall 2023 to complete the work. The agency said it needed more time because a recent requirement for air respirators for most tank farm workers, to protect them against chemical vapors, had reduced efficiency by 30 to 70 percent.

Hanford Challenge and the union representing Hanford welders and pipefitters filed a separate lawsuit over tank vapors in federal court Wednesday, Tri-City Herald reported.

“We have had enough. For years, our members have been exposed and sickened, and Hanford management has denied ever exposing anybody," Pete Nicacio, business manager for United Association of Steamfitters and Plumbers, Local 598, which represents Hanford workers, said in a press release Wednesday.

"They don’t have the monitoring equipment in place, they don’t have enough people to do the monitoring, and worst of all, Hanford officials have made it repeatedly clear that they don’t think there is a problem. We are taking this action today to protect our workers.”

Some workers exposed to toxic vapors over the years at Hanford have suffered serious long-term health effects such as brain damage, lung disease, and nervous system disorders, the press release said.

“The chemical vapors emanating from the Hanford tanks have various described odors: ammonia, rotten eggs, wine, old socks, musty, diaper pail, garlic, whisky, gasoline, wet cardboard, mint, fruit, chloroform, and butter," according to a 2003 report, Knowing Endangerment: Worker Exposure to Toxic Vapors at the Hanford Tank Farms by Hanford Challenge.

"One worker was exposed for approximately twenty minutes to high levels of what was described as an ammonia odor. Later, all of his exposed skin became bright red and he had a putrid, metallic taste in his mouth. He suffered a sore throat and vocal cords, recurring nosebleeds, and the need to constantly clear his throat. He suffered a series of headaches, and for five months his ‘lungs just wept,’ coughing up a white, milky substance, his voice underwent a permanent change, and he woke up in the middle of the night in severe respiratory distress and was rushed to the emergency room for treatment," the report said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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