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By Sam Pearson
Nov. 17 — The Department of Energy does not need to provide additional protections for workers at the Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington State against harmful chemical vapors, a federal judge concluded this week ( Hanford Challenge v. Moniz , E.D. Wash., No. 4:15-cv-05086, 11/15/16 ).
Attorneys with the office of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) filed a motion alleging that workers faced imminent harm if the Energy Department failed to promptly stem worker exposures to radioactive and chemical wastes. The state said the Energy Department needed to expand a vapor control zone and use additional monitoring equipment, among other demands.
On Nov. 15, U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice denied the motion for emergency steps, saying the federal government has already provided some protections.
Rice wrote that the plaintiffs “have failed to make a clear showing to meet their burden that an imminent and substantial endangerment to health may presently exist.”
However, Rice also rejected a request by the Energy Department Nov. 3 to dismiss the case, allowing it to continue. The case is scheduled for trial in September 2017.
In a Nov. 15 statement, Ferguson credited his office’s legal action with prompting the new safety improvements.
“I’m pleased the court recognized the importance of the safety measures that were implemented only after we filed our motion for emergency worker protections,” Ferguson said. “As we prepare for trial next year, I will be watching closely to make sure those protections remain in place.”
A spokesman for Washington River Protection Solutions—the contractor that manages tank farm operations—did not respond to a request for comment Nov. 17 and an Energy Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Workers at the site manage about 56 million gallons of chemical and radioactive waste stored in 177 aging tanks. The mostly decommissioned nuclear facility is located alongside the Columbia River. And about 1,800 chemicals are present in the tanks, 59 of which could pose risks to workers, according to a website managed by the river protection group.
Separately, a report released this month by the Energy Department’s Office of the Inspector General found a minority of Hanford workers feared retaliation for reporting unsafe conditions.
The report said seven of 52 workers contacted were concerned about retaliation if they reported exposure to chemical vapors. In addition, the report said, many workers did not understand why some proposals for managing the tanks were developed but not implemented.
The Office of the Inspector General recommended “improvements in communication” to better inform workers about the cleanup effort and ease their concerns of retaliation.
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