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Hanford vapors lawsuit heading to mediation

In this 2014 file photo, a sign informs visitors of prohibited items on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
In this 2014 file photo, a sign informs visitors of prohibited items on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

Parties in a lawsuit seeking better protection for Hanford workers from chemical vapors have agreed to pursue mediation, according to court documents filed Wednesday.

Plaintiffs and defendants have asked U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice to move the trial to March 5, 2018, if mediation fails. The trial currently is set for October at the Richland federal courthouse.

The delay in the trial and other deadlines will give the parties time to agree to a mediator and start discussions, according to court documents.

The agreement comes the same day that another possible release of chemical vapors was reported – the first incident of the new year.

Workers reported an odor consistent with chemical vapors on Wednesday near work trailers outside Hanford’s AP Tank Farm.

None of the nine workers in the area reported symptoms – such as coughing or shortness of breath – and all declined medical evaluations. They were told to leave the area and access was restricted.

Workers are required to wear supplied air respirators as protection from tank vapors when they enter any Hanford tank farm. The chemical vapors are associated with waste stored in underground tanks.

The state of Washington, Hanford Challenge and the local pipefitters union sued the Department of Energy and its tank farm contractor at Hanford in September 2015.

The parties said in court documents filed Wednesday that they had started preliminary settlement discussions after Dec. 6, when Rice agreed to move the nonjury trial to October 2017.

Plaintiffs then were concerned about the large volume of Hanford records that were still being released to them. They also wanted time to consider the court’s denial of their request for an injunction to require certain worker protections pending the trial, according to court documents.

They have asked the judge to make a decision by Feb. 1 on the proposed new schedule.

More than 50 workers received medical checks in 2016 because of potential exposure to chemical vapors and were cleared by the site’s occupational health provider to return to work.

On Wednesday, the odors were reported during pre-job briefings at work trailers about 200 yards east of the AP Tank Farm fence line, according to Washington River Protection Solutions, the Hanford tank farm contractor.

Workers reported the odors as smelling like rotten eggs, sulfur or onions.

Industrial hygiene collected and analyzed samples after the smells were reported. When none of the samples showed contaminants above background levels, workers were allowed to return to the area of the work trailers.

The state of Washington has argued that workers have been sickened for decades at Hanford from inhaling chemical vapors. Hanford Challenge said that some workers have developed serious respiratory and neurological illnesses from chemical exposure.

Plaintiffs had asked the court to require immediate increased worker protections, but Rice ruled that Hanford workers were already protected by requiring supplied air respirators within tank farms.

However, the judge cautioned that his ruling should not be taken as an indication that exposure to vapors is not a serious issue.

“The court does not deny that vapor exposures have occurred or that employees have experienced serious vapor-related illnesses,” the judge said.

DOE’s arguments debunking and minimizing Hanford employees’ claims of illnesses are unpersuasive, he said.

DOE has invested $50 million in two years to increase worker protection and is working on more improvements for an additional $65 million.

The underground tanks must be vented or exhausted to the atmosphere to preserve nuclear safety, so efforts are focused on minimizing and controlling vapors where people are working.

The state is asking in the lawsuit for the court to take all actions needed to eliminate danger from tank vapors, which it said could include independent oversight, improved controls to keep chemicals from entering the environment, better monitoring and expanded requirements for supplied air respirators.

Hanford Challenge and Local 598 are making additional requests, including requirements for ongoing comprehensive medical monitoring of past and present Hanford workers and communication of complete information to workers and the public about vapor exposure incidents.

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