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Worker's health endangered from fumes at nuclear clean-up site

Paraphrased by
Steve Waldrop
April 16, 2004

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 worst-contaminated site in North America.

The Hanford Nuclear Site, located in southeastern Washington, has been a focus of the Government Accountability Project since 1987.

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.

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 exposure 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.

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

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 on long-term effects of the chemicals that are out there, because they are at such a low level."

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.

The Energy Department is investigating the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation, the private contractor that monitors and provides health care to Hanford workers.