The KING 5 Investigators have found that six Hanford workers were sickened Wednesday from ingesting chemical vapors at the nuclear facility.
Three were helping to conduct a video inspection of an underground nuclear storage tank. Two of the three were transported to Kadlec Medical Center by ambulance for treatment of symptoms. Another received treatment at Hanford’s onsite medical facility. Late Wednesday night KING learned both employees have been released from the hospital and are cleared to return to work.
A spokesman for their employer, the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s contractor Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), said three additional workers who do not work for WRPS reported “possible vapor-related symptoms” Wednesday after working in an area Tuesday that had a chemical release.
“All three were taken to the site medical provider," said Jerry Holloway, External Affairs Manager at WRPS. Those three have all been released from that facility "for return to work as well," said Holloway.
This brings the total to 17 Hanford employees who have needed medical care since last Wednesday due to the inhalation of toxic vapors. All but three of the workers are employed by WRPS, which has the multi-million dollar contract to manage all of the site’s underground nuclear waste storage tanks. There are 177 tanks holding 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemically contaminated sludge at the site.
“Data collection and analysis is underway in the affected (tank) farms to understand what happened and what might be done to reduce the likelihood of future occurrences,” said Holloway.
On Wednesday, March 19, two WRPS workers inhaled a release of unknown chemicals in what’s called the AY-AZ tank area. Those employees returned to work but continue to receive medical care for persistent symptoms such as coughing, difficulty breathing and headaches.
Six days later, on Tuesday, March 25, four more WRPS workers also working in the AY-AZ area inhaled fumes that made them sick. Immediately afterward, two workers with expertise in investigating chemical releases went into the area to attempt to find the source when they too became ill. KING 5 has found they were not wearing appropriate protective gear such as respirators. The area was evacuated after incident and remains closed.
A few hours later Tuesday three more WRPS employees breathed in fumes approximately eight miles away in the S-SX tank area. It is not known what they inhaled, but two were transported to the hospital and one to the Hanford medical clinic.
The incident Wednesday occurred in yet another location at the Hanford site, at what’s called the T tank farm, about a quarter mile from the S-SX area. Sources tell the reporter 17 people were working on the video inspection when three were suddenly sickened by the release of vapors.
Chemicals that were used in the production of plutonium at Hanford from 1943 to 1989 are mixed with other wastes in the tanks and create vapors. At times the vapors exit the tanks through ventilation systems. Some workers have been critical of their employer, WRPS, for not installing enough safety mechanisms to prevent the exposures. A spokesperson for the company told KING “in recent years WRPS has taken a number of steps to reduce potential vapor exposures to its workers.”
“It’s pretty scary. It doesn’t usually happen like this. Usually you see four or five a year. But to have this many in eight days is really abnormal,” said retired WRPS employee Mike Geffre. In his 26-year career at Hanford, Geffre was exposed to chemical releases three times. One of the incidents left him sick for a week.
“Whenever you hear of someone getting tank vapors, you never know what the long term affects are. The affects of exposures like this can show up as health problems years down the road,” said Geffre.
“The presence of chemical vapors is one of the hazards of tank farm operations, and WRPS takes a conservative approach to dealing with its risks – one designed to minimize potential worker exposure and provide an appropriate medical response, when necessary,” said Holloway.