Energy Department officials ignored worker safety when venting an underground tank with chronic vapor problems, a watchdog group alleges in a report issued Monday.
Energy Department officials said they are reviewing the study, but say it grossly overestimates the risks from the now-abandoned ventilation system at Tank C-103.
The report’s author, the Government Accountability Project, said Hanford’s management of the tank vapor problem is an example of widespread lack of concern for workers involved in the program to clean up some 177 similar tanks.
Since 1989, taxpayers have spent $3.1 billion to clean up the vast underground tanks, some of which are leaking their contents into soils near the Columbia River.
Energy Department leaders “ignored their own technical experts and literally blew off safety in Tank C-103,” said Tom Carpenter, the accountability project’s West Coast director.
The 1 million-gallon, single-walled steel tank was built in 1951 to store radioactive and chemical byproducts of atomic weapons production at Hanford.
The Energy Department concluded after a 1992 investigation that charcoal filters Hanford contractors had installed sometime after 1987 to control vapors weren’t working and may have even forced release of unfiltered fumes elsewhere.
The report noted that since 1987, Energy Department scientists and workers had recommended a system that would actively treat the fumes. The investigation resulted in the requirement that employees working near the tank wear respirators.
In the past decade, 22 workers have been exposed to the potentially cancerous vapors from this tank, including an electrician who lost 40 percent of his lung capacity.
In 1994, after a string of incidents in which workers were overcome by the tank’s vapors, the state Ecology Department and federal Environmental Protection Agency gave Hanford managers until June 1995 to build a better ventilation system.
Hanford’s then-main site contractor, Westinghouse Hanford, came up with a design for Energy Department scientists and engineers to review.
Although the scientists were skeptical the proposed system would protect workers from toxicological effects and said moisture would likely clog system filters, the $328,000 ventilation system was attached to the tank.
The filter quickly clogged, and it was shut down after just 20 hours of operation.
Though designed to regulate the release of the vapors and funnel them away from workers, the system actually increased the amount of vapor released and concentrated it.
Workers who spend their careers near the system would be put at high risk of cancer and other chronic diseases, a study found.
Jackson Kinzer, the assistant tank program manager, said workers now spend about 10 minutes a week working near tank C-103. He said an airplane flight from Richland to Seattle would put a person at greater risk of developing cancer.
Kinzer said no workers have been exposed to tank fumes in more than two years.
But Ecology Department chemist Alex Stone said the study raises questions about the risk from fumes still coming from the tank, even though the ventilation system has been abandoned.
“This study is somewhat damning for DOE, and it can’t just be dismissed,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t mean that now doing nothing is OK.”