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00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Washington State Sues Feds Over Hanford Tank Worker Safety

Anna King
Northwest News Network
The "tank farms" of WWII- and Cold-War-era radioactive waste and chemical sludge at Hanford are cleaned by workers who need better protection, the state of Washington says.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson Wednesday announced a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy and some of its contractors over worker safety at the Hanford nuclear site.

The lawsuit is about protecting workers who are cleaning up decades of nuclear waste. And it's come to this because the state is stuck in a decades long cycle.

It’s a merry-go-round of people get sick, there’s a study, and people say that study needs to be followed. But then there is no enforcement, and despite good intentions, it’s not followed through.

A decade later there are more people getting sick and there’s another study. And it just keeps going around and around.

That’s what the attorney general’s office wants to stop. They want to get off the merry-go-round and say ‘we’re actually going to make it so people don’t get sick anymore.’

The state is hoping the lawsuit will result in concrete action from federal bodies. The Department of Energy and their contractors say their top priority is worker protection and lawsuits from the state only slow down progress.

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Hanford Lawsuit Q&A

Q: What is this lawsuit about?

A: It's about protections for people doing the work of cleaning up decades of nuclear waste.

Q: What kind of work are these people doing?

A: Cleaning out and monitoring underground tanks of radioactive and chemical sludge left over from World War II and the Cold War. This complex waste was the byproduct of making plutonium at Hanford for bombs. Each tank is big enough to fit a large two-story house in. We have 177 of them out here.

Q: What's the problem for workers?

A: The state is worried that some of them are leaking and they might rupture if they aren’t taken care of. It’s very hazardous stuff. People who work with even a test tube of it have to work in labs with special windows and robots. So the workers are pumping waste from one tank to another, and some of them are getting sick: Headache, bloody noses, some have claimed brain-wasting diseases.

Q: We hear a lot about lawsuits back and forth over Hanford cleanup. What’s the gist of this one?

A: The state doesn’t want another good report to sit on a shelf. The attorney general wants the federal government to have specifics on what it’s going to do to protect these workers. He wants to know, what kind of work are they doing, and how can that be done better, safer? What type of monitoring is going on out there, and can that be better and faster? What kind of protective clothing or breathing apparatus could they have to help them stay safe? Can they better control the source of the problem? Could they have chemical filters or scrubbers on the tanks to lessen the chemicals coming out? These are all questions the AG says he wants answered.

Q: What does the U.S. Department of Energy say about these problems?

A: The feds and their contractors say they’re working on it. And that having to deal with the state would slow down the overall timeline for cleanup. But the state says in order for certain worker protections to actually happen, they need a timeline for that. And at this point the state is saying the only way they can get that guaranteed is by filing this case and winning it or coming to a settlement agreement.

Q: What else is going on in the background of this problem?

A: The feds agreed decades ago to work with the state on cleanup agreements. And that agreement has been amended many times since then. It’s an agreement between the DOE, the EPA and the state of Washington. Recently a DOE contractor delivered a report to Congress. The bottom line of that report is that the state’s participation in that agreement is slowing down cleanup. And it specifically pointed to the fact that the state files lawsuits. The report says those lawsuits have to stop and asks Congress to stop them. But the AG says the state needs to stay in that agreement and needs to be able to file those suits to make sure some of this stuff even happens--like worker protections and tank cleanup.

So on the one hand you have Bob Ferguson saying that, and on the other you have the DOE and its contractors saying their top priority is worker safety and that they can’t even get anywhere if the state keeps suing them.

And when it comes to Congress, where they come down on this could come down to which party is in control.

The U.S. Department of Energy issued this statement Wednesday:

The Department’s top priority is the protection of our workforce, the public and the environment. To further enhance worker protection, DOE's tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), has increased the use of work controls and personal protective equipment, including the use of self-contained breathing apparatus in areas of potential vapor exposure. We are working closely with WRPS as they implement the first phase of activities identified in response to a technical assessment team chartered to address potential vapor exposures. The Department is committed to safe and efficient work in the tank farms.

Washington River Protection Solutions, tank farm contractor to the United States Department of Energy, issued this statement Wednesday:

Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) is committed to providing working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm from industrial, radiological or chemical hazards to its employees while they are working in Hanford’s tank farms. Between Oct. 1, 2008, when WRPS became the Hanford Tank Operations Contractor, and 2014, the company took a number of steps to improve the chemical vapors program. These steps included: the establishment of thresholds well below existing federal standards for worker exposure to chemical vapors averaged over a work day; increased and improved sampling methods; and the creation of wider vapor control zones for workers in the tank farms.


Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.