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Saturday, February 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Hanford workers exposed to vapors could seek help at proposed center

In this May 9, 2017, file photo, signs are posted by the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland. (Manuel Valdes / Associated Press)
In this May 9, 2017, file photo, signs are posted by the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland. (Manuel Valdes / Associated Press)
By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

The Department of Energy would be required to establish a resource center to help Hanford workers exposed to chemical vapors, under proposed federal legislation.

Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., inserted the requirement into the appropriations bill that would set the budget for the Hanford nuclear reservation for the next fiscal year.

The bill, which also would require continued work to protect workers, has passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee and now moves to the full Senate.

The proposed new center would provide education and advocacy to current and former Hanford employees on all available federal and state compensation programs to support workers who are injured on the job.

“While continued progress at Hanford is important, it should never come at the expense of workers’ health and safety,” Murray said. “I will fight to make sure the Trump administration does everything in its power to put safety first and provide Hanford workers the health care and benefits they deserve.”

DOE would be required to work with its contractors, labor unions and the state of Washington on the resource center.

Murray and Cantwell called on the DOE Office of Inspector General this spring to look into complaints that worker compensation claims in Hanford’s self-insured program were being dismissed on arbitrary grounds.

Hanford workers told Washington state Legislature committees this year that claims for illnesses they believe are tied to chemical vapor exposures at Hanford are routinely denied. The state Department of Labor and Industries makes final claim decisions for the Hanford self-insured program.

Proving which chemicals they were exposed to is difficult, workers said. The vapors are associated with waste that includes a mix of hundreds of chemicals in Hanford’s underground waste tanks.

“Instead of getting the care and treatment they deserve, they have to battle their way through a worker compensation system that consistently fails them,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a public watchdog group.

Hanford workers also are eligible for a federal compensation program, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, which has paid out more than $1.6 billion in compensation and reimbursed medical expenses to Hanford and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory employees or their survivors.

The federal bill language championed by Washington’s senators also would require DOE to continue implementing recommendations from the 2014 Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report, plus subsequent reviews by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Department of Energy Office of the Inspector General and Office of Enterprise Assessments.

The Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report was prepared by a team led by the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina, and resulted in recommendations to be implemented over several years. Initial recommendations include developing and testing technology to better track, detect and identify chemical vapors released into the air.

“Workers at Hanford deserve the most stringent possible precautions in place as they make progress on the cleanup,” Cantwell said. “The measures that Sen. Murray and I were able to include in the 2018 Appropriations bill will help make progress towards that important goal.”

Hanford workers currently are required to wear supplied-air respirators for most work within tank farm fence lines, and no worker is known to be exposed while wearing a respirator.

However, workers not wearing respirators because they are outside the tank farms have reported suspicious odors and respiratory symptoms that could be linked to chemical vapors.

By the Herald’s count, seven Hanford workers have received medical evaluations this year after reporting symptoms or odors. All were medically cleared to return to work.

Last year more than 50 workers were given medical evaluations for possible exposure to chemical vapors. In July 2016 the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council called for the mandatory use of supplied air respirators be expanded to more tank farms, which reduced the number of possible exposures reported.

The state of Washington has argued in an ongoing lawsuit in federal court that workers have been sickened for decades at Hanford from inhaling chemical vapors. Hanford Challenge, also a plaintiff, said that some workers have developed serious respiratory and neurological illnesses from chemical exposure.

Both Murray and Cantwell hold key positions in the Senate to legislate Hanford safety. Murray is a ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Cantwell is the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Murray and Cantwell also have sent a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, asking him to improve safety at the tank farms and to make sure that improvements last.

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