health endangered from fumes at nuclear clean-up site
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
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.
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
"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.