Northwest News

Plan to protect Hanford workers from chemical vapors released

A new plan to better protect workers from chemical vapors from Hanford tanks was released Tuesday by Washington River Protection Solutions.

The plan aims to address 47 recommendations made by a team of independent experts, led by the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina.

The Department of Energy has directed WRPS, its tank farm contractor, to move ahead with the plan in two phases, with 30 of the 47 steps completed by September 2016.

Phase I is estimated to cost about $61 million, with $20 million of that spent this fiscal year and $41 million in fiscal 2016 as work ramps up to hire industrial hygiene workers, buy equipment and determine its capabilities, and collect and analyze data.

The proposed strategy should reduce the high reliance on personal protective equipment and administrative controls, such as ropes strung to keep workers away from potentially hazardous areas, according to WRPS.

Instead, worker protection will move toward engineered controls and technologies. They include new ventilation systems and new methods to detect and sample chemical vapors.

In the meantime, workers will continue to wear supplied-air respirators for most of the work in the Hanford tank farms, where 56 million gallons of waste from the past production of weapons plutonium are stored.

Work will include reducing chemical vapor exposure on a tank farm by tank farm basis. More will be learned about the chemicals in the waste. Technology to detect and sample vapors will be improved.

In addition, more real-time monitoring of vapors is planned, with monitors both for the tank farms and individual workers.

New technology will be investigated, such as destroying vapors with ultraviolet lights, proposed during a DOE Grand Challenge Workshop.

DOE wants equipment for chemical vapors equivalent to dosimeters now used to detect radiation and sound alarms, said Tom Fletcher, DOE assistant manager of the Hanford tank farms.

The independent team’s report concluded that short, unpredictable and intense releases of vapors were the likely cause of health effects reported by workers, particularly upper respiratory irritation. Since April, 56 Hanford workers have received medical evaluations for potential exposure to chemical vapors.

Data will be gathered to confirm that theory and to learn more about what triggers the vapor releases, where the vapors come from, how they move and how workers can best be protected.

One of the major challenges will be finding the additional workers needed, Fletcher said. Almost 100 industrial hygiene technicians have been hired since the start of 2014 and local resources have been exhausted to hire more.

Development of technology to monitor individual workers and work areas will be the other major challenge, said Mark Lindholm, chief operations officer for the tank farms.

By October 2017 WRPS should be moving on to the second phase, which calls for institutionalizing improvements in all programs to protect workers, including ongoing monitoring, continued sampling and new vapor management controls.

“WRPS and (DOE) recognize that verifying the existence of and addressing potential exposures to chemical vapors over a large area and number of tank farms will take a sustained, ongoing effort,” the plan says.

An epidemiological study of tank farm workers to learn more about possible long-term health effects is planned.

The first step is making sure adequate data exists to provide useful results, Fletcher said. The Washington State Department of Health has been asked to provide input on what data would be needed for a study.

A panel of experts named by DOE will monitor implementation, serving as an extra set of eyes, Fletcher said. It will make sure technical responses are appropriate and justified and information on implementation is communicated well. It will review a report at the end of Phase I and make sure the proposed actions for Phase II are the best ones to take.

The Chemical Vapor Solutions Team at Hanford, which includes workers, and industrial hygiene staff were scheduled to be briefed on the plan Tuesday.

Briefings for all affected workers are planned Wednesday and Thursday.

The Washington State attorney general, Bob Ferguson, notified DOE and WRPS in November that he was preparing to file a lawsuit to protect Hanford workers from chemical vapors.

DOE has not responded to the notice and Ferguson has not entered talks with DOE, its contractor or the Tank Vapors Assessment Team concerning chemical vapor protection, according to his staff.

“I intend to hold the federal government accountable to their responsibility to maintain a safe work environment for Washingtonians,” Ferguson said in a statement Tuesday. He said he was reviewing the plan.

A second notice of an intent to file a lawsuit was sent in November by Hanford Challenge, union Local 598 and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.