RICHLAND – A settlement agreement has been reached in a 3-year-old lawsuit filed by Washington state to better protect workers from chemical vapors at the Hanford nuclear reservation, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Wednesday.
Washington state, watchdog group Hanford Challenge and union Local 598 filed suit against the Department of Energy and its tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions owned by AECOM and Atkins, in September 2015.
A settlement agreement in the federal court lawsuit was signed Wednesday.
It will only become effective if the court grants a joint motion to extend certain deadlines for emptying waste from some leak-prone single-shell tanks holding radioactive and chemical waste. Hanford has 56 million gallons of waste held in underground tanks from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
Workers exposed to chemical vapors associated with waste held in underground tanks have reported symptoms such as nosebleeds, headaches, difficulty breathing, coughing, sore throats and dizziness.
But there also have been cases of long-term disability, including loss of lung capacity, Ferguson said when the lawsuit was field. Problems have continued for decades, he said.
Hanford Challenge said workers have developed toxic encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by chemical exposure.
The settlement agreement acknowledges work DOE and its contractor have made in recent years to better protect workers, according to DOE. But it also requires continuing efforts.
Testing being done now must be completed on a system designed to pull tank vapors into a combustion chamber and use heat to reduce chemical concentration, according to the agreement.
Testing also is underway on a vapor control system that uses a high-velocity fan to mix the gases and vapors in ventilation stacks from the tanks with clean air and then expel them at high speed well above where workers are breathing.
Settlement talks began in late 2016 after a federal judge denied the state of Washington’s request for increased protections for Hanford workers until the lawsuit was resolved.
Hanford workers already are protected by a requirement that supplied air respirators be used within the tank farms — areas where waste is stored in underground tanks at the nuclear reservation, said U.S. Judge Thomas Rice in a ruling in November 2016.
However, his ruling should not be taken to mean that exposure to vapors is not a serious issue for workers, he said.
Although there may not be a current threat of harm to workers, “the court does not deny that vapor exposures have occurred or that employees have experienced serious vapor-related illnesses,” he said.
DOE’s arguments debunking and minimizing Hanford employees’ claims of illness were unpersuasive, Rice said.
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