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Cleanup crews worry about nuclear waste

Some cleanup workers at the nation's largest nuclear weapons reservation are worried about their health despite assurances from the company hired to deal with the waste.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Steve and Virginia Wallace know the symptoms of exposure to chemical vapors: headaches, nosebleeds, a metallic taste.

With a combined 30 years working at the Hanford nuclear site, the two respiratory equipment specialists believe workers there aren’t being adequately protected.

The state and federal governments are investigating procedures at Hanford’s so-called tank farms amid allegations that corners are being cut — and workers endangered — to speed cleanup of the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.

More than 90 workers have sought medical care for exposure at the tank farms in the past two years, according to data gathered by the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit watchdog group. Few workers will speak publicly.

Cancer risks
A 1997 draft report by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory concluded that the risk of contracting cancer from exposure to the vapors could be as high as 1.6 in 10.

In the industrial world, normal risk is for one worker in 10,000 to contract cancer from exposures in the workplace, according to Tim Jarvis, a former researcher at the laboratory and peer reviewer of the report. Jarvis now is a private consultant often contracted by the Government Accountability Project.

“The report shows that exposure to tank vapors is extremely hazardous and will most likely lead to fatal cancers in the workers if exposure is continued,” he said.

“My own personal opinion is I’m not being protected,” said Virginia Wallace, who takes samples inside the tanks. Her husband is an instrument technician. “People are afraid to seek medical attention. I’ve been scared.”

For 40 years, the Hanford reservation made plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Today, work there centers on a $50 billion to $60 billion cleanup to be finished by 2035 under an accelerated schedule pushed by the Bush administration.

53 million gallons, 177 tanks
The most deadly waste, about 53 million gallons of radioactive liquid, sludge and saltcake, sits in 177 underground tanks less than 10 miles from the Columbia River. Plans call for turning much of that waste into glass logs and burying it at a nuclear waste repository.

Experts have identified as many as 1,200 chemicals, including some known cancer-causing agents, in the tanks.

CH2M Hill, the Colorado-based contractor hired to handle cleanup, and the Energy Department, which manages the cleanup, say most of the chemicals are diluted and pose no danger to workers. Only three — ammonia, nitrous oxide and butanol — have been found in the tanks’ air cavities at levels exceeding occupation exposure limits, CH2M Hill said.

“No one has received a toxic dose of these chemicals,” said Rob Barr, director of environment safety and quality for the Energy Department’s Office of River Protection.

“We are concerned and they should be concerned,” Barr said. But, he added, “We have a very high assurance that there are no long-term effects of the chemicals that are out there, because they are at such a low level.”

CH2M Hill says the rising number of exposures are, in part, a result of educating workers about vapors and encouraging them to report unusual smells.

800 plus work in tank farms
More than 800 people work in the tank farms for CH2M Hill. The total work force at Hanford is about 11,000 people.

Following four vapor incidents in two weeks last month — which sent nine workers for medical evaluations — CH2M Hill halted routine work in the tank farms. The company has restarted some work since, but employees who enter the tank farms must wear respirators.

Critics argue that respirators can’t protect against all 1,200 chemicals.

Last month, the Energy Department began formally investigating the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation, the private contractor that monitors and provides health care to Hanford workers. The contractor has denied allegations that include fraud and medical-records mismanagement. Officials there did not return telephone messages seeking comment Friday.

A report CH2M Hill commissioned last fall by four independent experts cited failures to communicate procedural changes or safety issues about vapors.

Susan Eberlein, vice president of safety for CH2M Hill, said the company is continuing to educate employees about vapors and improve communications.

“We’re trying to minimize exposures as much as possible,” she said.