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DOE, Contractor Fight Nuclear Waste Suit

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

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The U.S. Department of Energy and a contractor are seeking the dismissal of a suit brought by the state of Washington as the state and the federal government continue to spar over hazards surrounding leaking nuclear waste tanks in Hanford, WA.

The Washington Attorney General’s office announced in September 2015 that it was pursuing a suit against the DOE and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), on behalf of workers who the state said were exposed to “noxious fumes and chemical vapors” during cleanup at the Hanford nuclear site.

According to news reports published on Friday (Sept. 2), WRPS joined the DOE late last month in asking a judge to dismiss the case against them.

The Lawsuit

According to the attorney general’s office, in the 18 months between March 2014 and September 2015, when the suit was brought, “at least 50 workers … sought medical attention for exposure to chemical vapors at the site.”

Historical photo of Hanford tanks
Images: U.S. Dept. of Energy

The ”tank farm” on the Hanford site holds 177 underground storage tanks, which contain 56 million gallons of nuclear waste.

The suit, filed under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, cites a 2014 study commissioned by the DOE, which concluded that vapor emissions at the Hanford tank farm was endangering workers.

The DOE and WRPS have asked that the federal judge in the case dismiss it on the basis that the state of Washington does not have standing to file it; the two entities claim that the state cannot represent workers in the case (though workers could file suit on their own), and that the state hasn’t shown that the vapors are causing environmental damage, which would give it reason to sue.

WRPS, which is in charge of the underground storage tanks at the Hanford site, is a joint venture between URS Corporation and Energy Solutions. The company has set up a website to disseminate information about vapor releases at the site.

About Hanford

Constructed in 1943 and 1944, the Hanford site, on the Columbia River in eastern Washington, was the world’s first plutonium production site, and it was where the first nuclear bomb ever tested was built. The last reactor on the site closed in 1987, according to the DOE, and in 1989, the government began a large-scale cleanup effort.

Workers perform operations on a tank  at Hanford

Washington state filed suit alleging that workers were exposed to “noxious fumes and chemical vapors” during cleanup at the Hanford site.

The ”tank farm” on the Hanford site holds 177 underground storage tanks, which contain 56 million gallons of nuclear waste.

In 2012, the DOE discovered that one double-shell tank, Tank AY-102, was leaking into its secondary containment. In 2013, a single-shell tank, T-111, was reported to be leaking. In the past, 67 of the tanks have leaked at least 1 million gallons of waste, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.

Contractor Problems

The Hanford site contractors have a long history of issues.

Just last month, the state’s Department of Ecology issued a $50,000 fine to the DOE and another of its contractors, C2HM Hill Plateau Remediation Company, alleging waste violations stemming from a November 2015 inspection.

The Department of Energy has initiated 12 enforcement actions, ranging from letters of notice to consent decrees, in relation to contractors on the site in the past decade.

In 2014, a former WRPS employee who was laid off in 2011 was ordered to be reinstated by the Department of Labor on the basis that she had acted as a whistleblower, reporting violations of federal and state environmental laws. And in 2013, C2HM Hill struck a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations of a time card fraud scheme that bilked the Department of Energy out of nearly $2 million over a period of a decade.


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); hazardous materials; Hazardous waste; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Latin America; North America; Safety; Tanks; U.S. Department of Energy; Workers

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (9/7/2016, 8:15 AM)

Washington has a department set up for worker protection and the exposures happened within their borders. I'd say they should have standing if their citizens are being harmed by unsafe work practices.

Comment from B Brown, (9/7/2016, 2:36 PM)

This story has a ring to it much like too big to fail, the Fed shutting that sheriff in Arizona down for rounding up illegal aliens. Even fits the story of the massive nuclear waste storage facility we spent several billion dollars constructing for permanent storage of nuclear waste. It was terminated because geologists could not guarantee the waste would remain secure of a million years. That waste has been in temporary storage since the inception of the Manhattan Project. Sadly, this story is about one of those sites instead of permanently stored under Yucca Mountain. Instead it's slowly leaking from out of site out of mind underground storage tanks.

Comment from Tony Rangus, (9/8/2016, 1:41 PM)

I worked at DOE facilities (Savannah River & Hanford)for 14 years and one of the most important rules for a worker was that if he/she felt their was a safety or health issue, that work be immediately stopped and the issue(s) must be remedied before any work continues. Granted, it is not unheard of for a contractor to pressure workers to continue working, but here again, any worker who feels there is an unsafe practice, they must stop the job. I always wonder if an employee knew or suspected an unsafe condition existed but was reluctant to speak up for fear of crying wolf. The Hanford facility has been there since 1944 and will be there forever as the facility is much to big to greenfield. So a cry wolf work stoppage of a day, a week a month should be no issue. Schedule and incentive monies may be high on a list, but safety at the DOE weapons complex is always #1.

Comment from Franklin Teagle, (9/9/2016, 10:24 AM)

I have worked and lived near this facility my entire life. Kennewick and Richland, Wa. The employees of this facility that i grew up with and have spoken with all agree that we didn't know what would come of the nuclear waste as we hadn't done this scale of work until then. "Manhatten Project" So there was no model to work from in order to guarantee that the tanks wouldn't leak. Given the situation we had to put it some where. So we built the tank farms. These things are massive and constantly monitored. But i worked on the facility the DOE constructing now, called the Vitrification Plant on the Hanford Reservation. This will take all the nuclear waste, sort it to High Level Waste and Low Level Waste, then it will go to the appropriate areas and become glass cylinders. These cylinders are planned (at least when i was there in 2014) to be transported to a storage facility beneath the Yucca Mountain, where it will live out its nuclear life. It would be nice to think that the government knows all, but they are only humen just like the rest of us. I can tell you that the safety plan, practices, culture even on the Hanford Reservation is like nothing i have seen before. No one can hold a torch to what WRPS, HAMTEC, DOE, BECHTEL, all the contractors on that site do to keep workers safe. I enjoyed my time there, always felt safe, and i know that if you got hurt. It was your own fault. Because you don't have a choice but to know better.

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