Our Voice: Tank farm workers should help with independent research

Hanford Challenge might have some good ideas about protecting tank farm workers from chemical vapors, but warning the people in harm's way not to cooperate with efforts to mitigate the risks isn't one of them.

Hanford contractor Washington River Protection Solutions recently asked the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina to do the third independent study of tank vapors in recent years.

The study will put the full resources of the national laboratory system behind the investigation to not just study the chemical vapor issue, "but put it to bed once and for all," Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, told the Herald. "We are going to solve this issue."

But Hanford Challenge said the Department of Energy has a history of retaliation against workers who raise concerns or become ill.

"DOE has not acted to protect, or even protest, the retaliation against workers who have spoken out about safety," said Tom Carpenter, executive director for the Seattle-based Hanford watchdog and worker advocacy group.

Carpenter won't have to look hard to find an example to bolster his case, but if workers face any danger of retaliation for cooperating with the tank vapor study, refusing to participate is the wrong remedy.

Tank farm workers should do all they can to help researchers get to the bottom of the problem. At least 28 workers have received medical attention this spring after possible exposure to chemical vapors from Hanford's underground tank wastes.

Worker exposure to vapors has been an issue for decades, with some workers experiencing serious and chronic illnesses attributed to the chemical exposure, according to Hanford Challenge.

Continuing symptoms of some of those exposed late in 2013 and this spring include persistent coughing, headaches, shortness of breath and disorientation. Of particular concern is the worry that workers will develop cancer in the future because of the chemical exposure, Carpenter said.

Even if fears of retaliation for speaking out are justified, which is questionable, the seriousness of the health risks still make it irresponsible not to help resolve the issue.

Workers have protection from potential retaliation, including the ability to cooperate anonymously. If DOE or its contractors take action to punish workers, legal recourse would be available.

In 2005, a jury awarded $4.8 million in damages plus $1.4 million in attorney fees to 11 Hanford pipefitters who claimed they were laid off for raising safety concerns. The state Supreme Court later upheld the verdict.

Frankly, Hanford Challenge's objections to the new study sound like sour grapes. Previous independent studies of tank vapors in 2008 and 2010 were done with Hanford tank farm contractors and Hanford Challenge working together through the independent Hanford Concerns Council.

That produced independent and credible industrial hygiene reviews and responses, according to Hanford Challenge.

And yet, problems persist.

Hanford Challenge also criticized the independence of the new study, given that Hanford and the Savannah River lab are under Department of Energy control.

We've seen similar charges levied at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, especially when scientific findings don't jibe with preconceived notions held by Hanford critics. But the national laboratory system's reputation for scientific integrity remains intact.

Why not point a finger at Hanford Challenge for the state and federal grant money it accepts? Don't the financial ties affect the organization's ability to operate independently?

That's not a credible allegation, but neither is the one raised against the Savannah River lab.

It's in everyone's best interest to resolve the tank farm vapors issue. Anyone the with ability to help ought to participate in the new study.