Nearly four months after a tank of chemicals exploded here, Winston McCulley’s throat hurts. His ears ache. His lungs burn and his mood swings.
His wife and three young children say they don’t feel well.
To top it off, the 41-year-old Hanford Nuclear Reservation worker says he’s getting harassed at work for voicing his complaints and delving into the details of the incident that’s turned his life upside down.
He’s not alone. Thursday, the dozen or so workers directly exposed to the fumes joined others from the plant in a private meeting with U.S. Secretary of Energy Federico Pena.
The workers asked for top-flight medical care and an end to the unwelcome comments and innuendos from management and some colleagues. They say now is the big test - will Pena come through on his pledge to help them? After all, they add, they’ve been ignored before.
“He looked pretty sincere, but you know, we’ve been pushing this for almost four months,” said one electrician, who refused to give his name.
The man shrugged his shoulders. “We’ll see.”
The night before, McCulley said he’d pinned all his hopes on Pena, because that was all he had left.
“I think we’re going to find out real soon just how much power Mr. Pena really has, whether the old-time (Department of Energy) boys are in charge of DOE, or if Mr. Pena’s in charge,” he said.
Pena, who said he found the remarks disturbing, vowed to make a difference.
“I’m going to review (their comments) and get them an answer,” Pena said at a news conference after the meeting. “I’m going to get back to them as soon as possible.”
Many of the workers say that since things went wrong one night in May, not much in their lives has gone right.
A pair of volatile chemicals, mysteriously allowed to evaporate to dangerous levels in an on-site tank, exploded at 8:30 p.m. on May 14 with such force they blew a hole in the tank’s stainless steel. A plume of brown smoke rose from the area and wafted over the main building.
In the resulting confusion, eight workers were ordered to leave their trailer and report to the main building. They walked right through the fumes. Other workers - at least two, perhaps more - were also told at various times after the explosion to go outside and check on other machinery, and they too may have inhaled the smoke or gotten it on their clothing.
Local doctors have since confirmed that the employees are suffering from some type of toxic exposure, but the workers want to know more. They want Fluor Daniel Hanford Inc., the company with a $5 billion, five-year contract to manage the facility, to send them to a hospital in Galveston, Texas, where they say researchers have long experience in testing for and treating such exposures.
“We’ve been stonewalled,” said Joe Merrick, an electrician who took a voluntary layoff within a month of the explosion.
Craig Kuhlman, a spokesman for the company, said the decision on where to send the workers rests with an independent medical consultant who is checking out the Galveston hospital to see whether it is the appropriate facility.
The workers also say that all this agitation on their part has turned others against them at work - particularly management.
“I’ve been majorly harassed by management and co-workers,” said Darlene Good, a radiological control technician exposed when she went outside to check on parts of the facility. “I’ve already asked for a transfer out of my area because of the harassment that’s continued for the last 3-1/2 months.”
“We’re kind of like a sore thumb,” the electrician said. “We’re still there.”
Kuhlman said the company had received no complaints.
“We’ve said many times: There is absolutely zero tolerance to any kind of retaliation,” he said.
As for McCulley, he wants to believe that. He wants to believe it all. He says he hopes Pena comes through for him, so he doesn’t have to dread going to work anymore, wondering what someone might say.
But most importantly, he said, he wants to know what in the world is making him and Annette, 33, Ashley, 11, Michael, 8, and Paige, 4, so sick.
“Do we have to live with this?” he asked, balancing Paige on his knee in the family’s Richland living room. “What is this going to do to us?”
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