Minutes after an explosion at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, construction workers were ordered to walk into the path of a toxic chemical release, then held for four hours without medical attention.
After workers drove themselves to the emergency room, the doctors “basically … just gave us a cup of water and told us everything was OK,” said Paul Kramar, a 42-year-old electrician who says he since has experienced breathing problems, severe headaches and bouts of inexplicable rage.
“The emergency room doctor … said we were suffering from group hysteria.”
U.S. Department of Energy investigators have since revealed that the May 14 explosion released plumes of oxides of nitrogen and nitric acid. Some of the ailments the workers have complained of, such as respiratory problems and skin irritations, are consistent with exposure to those chemicals.
No radiation was released, Energy Department officials say.
The emergency response described by the workers raises questions about the DOE and its contractors’ handling of serious accidents on the nuclear reservation.
Energy Department investigators have acknowledged mismanagement of the 35 gallons of chemicals in the 400-gallon tank inside a plutonium finishing plant allowed the chemicals to evaporate to the point they exploded.
Now, Energy Department and independent investigators from the state Department of Ecology are also focusing on the chaotic response to the mysterious blast.
Ron Gerton, who is heading the DOE’s internal investigation, said when the plume of smoke was released, a “take cover” siren was sounded, indicating that all workers should stay inside. At the time, the team of eight construction workers was inside a trailer adjacent to the plant, taking a break.
“The thing to do was to go indoors, shut the windows and stay indoors,” Gerton said yesterday. “It’s not clear to us why they were asked to come into the main building … following a path that would have been directly under the plume. Part of what we’re doing now is figuring out why those management decisions were made.”
He said investigators are exploring whether the plume had already blown through by the time the men walked outside to the west, but haven’t reached any conclusions.
Steve Moore, who is handling state ecology’s investigation, said a plume of chemicals was continuously released for at least 11 minutes and perhaps as long as 15 minutes after the explosion - a period all workers should have been kept inside.
Why they were told to go outside before a battery of chemical tests was completed is a question many of the workers - some of whom say they are still experiencing respiratory problems, sleeplessness and puzzling surges of anger - would like answered.
Immediately after the 7:53 p.m. tank explosion, several of the workers say they received a series of conflicting, confusing orders.
The take-cover siren and an armed security guard told them to stay put. But announcements over the P.A. system repeatedly told workers to head for a central room in the plant.
Winston McCulley Jr., superintendent of the crew of six electrical workers and one laborer working the swing shift that night, said he called the plant command center to find out which order to follow. The top commander at the time, the building emergency director, ordered him to come to the plant. Against his better judgment, McCulley said he told his men they had no choice but to go.
“I’m just kicking myself in the butt for not staying put,” said McCulley, a father of three who says he has been plagued by headaches, sleeplessness and an inability to think clearly since the explosion.
Early annoucements had warned workers to avoid the western end of the building, because the wind would carry any releases that way. But McCulley and his crew were ordered by a security guard to walk that direction anyway, because the only other way to get to the plant would have taken them past the site of the explosion itself.
On their walk, several of the men spotted plumes of smoke coming out of the plant’s stack, tasted metal and smelled chlorine, McCulley said.
As soon as they arrived at the plant command center, they reported the metallic taste to the emergency team. Supervisors for their employer, Hanford contractor Fluor Daniel Northwest, suggested soon thereafter they go to Kadlec Medical Center in nearby Richland.
But it took Hanford managers at least three and half hours to arrange for the men to leave. In the interim, McCulley said he was sent back to the trailer to pick up the men’s car keys so they could drive themselves to the hospital.
Once he got to the trailer, he learned from the security guard they both should have been wearing masks. No one had bothered to tell him, he said.
By the time the men were cleared to leave the plant, McCulley said he had a raspy voice and was feeling lightheaded. Kramar said his lungs were aching, his right ear ringing, and he was experiencing strange contractions across his shoulders.
When the crew got to the hospital, they found Hanford doctors and Fluor Daniel supervisors waiting for them. They were told it was unlikely they had been exposed to anything. Their requests for blood and urine tests were denied by emergency room doctors, they said.
All eight men were examined in just 45 minutes, according to a May 15 chronology by a Fluor Daniel Northwest safety manager that was given to the workers.
“The emergency room was kind of a joke,” said electrician Bernard Grisweld. “They took your vital signs and that was about it. They said we were imagining it.”
But when 53-year-old Grisweld got home from the hospital, he said he found his bald head was breaking out in a rash of bright red, measleslike blisters.
In a panic, he scrubbed his head with a hot washcloth. He said he suffered from headaches and a sore throat for about a week. He inexplicably lost his temper and headed the wrong way on the freeway.
Now that his symptoms have subsided, he said he’s not sure whether Hanford doctors are right, and his reactions were caused by the stress of the explosion.
“I honestly can’t say whether that had to do with chemicals, or stress related,” he said. “We sat in the dark basically for several days not knowing what kind of chemicals were involved, and it was stressful.”
Kramar said he is convinced stress was not the root cause of the aching lungs, severe headaches and unreasonable bouts of rage he has experienced since the explosion.
“That plume cloud wasn’t small,” he said. “Basically that whole building took a sneeze, and I don’t think we’ll ever know everything that came out of that building.”
Dr. Larry Smick, the Hanford Environmental Health Facility doctor overseeing the men’s care, did not return repeated calls from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Gerton said a statement he received from Smick conflicts with the workers’ accounts, but refused to provide any more detail.
Since their trip to the emergency room, the men have been given complete physicals, and those who choose will be examined this week at Harborview Hospital in Seattle, said Gerton.
Harborview physicians who specialize in treating victims of chemical exposures said they were hesitant yesterday to second-guess the medical treatment the workers were given.
Dr. Scott Barnhart, who directs the hospital’s Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program, said in a situation in which little is known about the chemicals involved, it’s crucial to listen closely to victims. A careful examination, replete with an X-ray and blood and urine tests, would be part of a usual protocol, he said.
He also said it’s not uncommon for accident victims to have psychological reactions to traumatic experiences, such as mood changes, headaches and inability to concentrate.
Dr. Jeff Burgess, the associate medical director of the Washington Poison Center at Harborview, said respiratory tests can also help doctors determine the effects of a sudden release.