Hanford sources tell the KING 5 Investigators that at least 11 people have gotten sick in the last six days after breathing in toxic fumes while working near underground tanks holding hazardous nuclear waste. At this point, employees do not know the source or sources of the vapors.
The first two workers to fall ill in the last week breathed in fumes that “tasted like copper” on Wednesday, March 19. The men work for the government contractor Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) which is in charge of all 177 underground tanks at the nuclear site. To date, both are still suffering effects of breathing in the vapors: headache, chest pain, difficulty breathing, nose bleeds and sore throats. One employee has coughed up blood.
Sources who work in this area of Hanford tell KING it is unknown exactly what the employees ingested into their lungs, but that this is “extremely unusual” to have symptoms persist this long.
The next batch of employees to get sick breathed in fumes today, Tuesday, March 25. Four WRPS employees breathed in vapors at 9:00 am and were immediately transported to a medical facility on the Hanford site, known as HPMC, the Hanford Occupational Health Services clinic. After that incident, the tank farm, identified as AY-AZ farm was evacuated, deemed a Vapor Control Zone. Between 20 and 30 people were working there at the time.
Immediately afterward two employees from what’s known as the industrial hygiene department of WRPS, who monitor chemical exposures, were sent out to investigate and they too, had reactions to the fumes and were transported to the onsite medical facility. Those employees allegedly were not wearing protective devices such as respirators.
Sources tell KING 5 that three additional employees got sick from ingesting fumes later on Tuesday. These WRPS employees were working in a different portion of the tank farm complex, known as the S-SX Farm, located about 8 to 10 miles from the AY-AZ farm. That location was also deemed a Vapor Control Zone and was evacuated. Sources say two were transported to the hospital by ambulance and one was transported to the HPMC.
“The place is falling apart and they (WRPS) aren't doing anything to fix it,” said one employee.
One of the victims told KING the symptoms were dissipating but still irritating. “I feel fine now but when you get chemical exposure, you have respiratory issues.”
Several employees who spoke with the reporter Tuesday were upset that WRPS has yet to install additional monitoring equipment in the tank farm areas. There is monitoring equipment available that can detect chemical releases but so far, none has been installed.
“It’s BS,” said one worker. “We’ve expressed our opinion about it. We’ve said you haven’t taken the time to put in monitors and they say ‘It’s in the works’. Yet they keep sending us out to work. They’re not putting safety first.”
A spokesperson for WRPS sent a statement to KING on Tuesday evening which stated the company does monitor for chemical releases.
"Washington River Protection Solutions has a comprehensive industrial hygiene program that monitors chemical vapors in teh tank farms and in recent years WRPS has taken a number of steps to reduce potential vapor exposures to its workers," said Jerry Holloway, External Affairs Manager, WRPS.
The US Dept. of Energy, which owns Hanford and employs WRPS, did not return a phone call and email requesting a comment for this story.
Read the entire statement provided by Washington River Protection Solutions:
There have been several incidents in the past week where Hanford workers have smelled chemical vapors in the tank farms. In each of these instances, workers responded in accordance with procedures and training to limit exposure.
This morning, two workers were transported to Kadlec Hospital in Richland after complaining of coughing and throat irritation after smelling vapors in one of Hanford’s tank farms. Workers in the farm exited the area and moved upwind.
The two workers were examined and released from the hospital and returned to work. Seven additional workers elected to go to the Hanford site medical provider, HPMC Occupational Medical Services, where they were examined and released.
Last Wednesday two workers were checked at HPMC after smelling chemical vapors and were returned to work.
Hanford’s underground waste tanks are vented to the atmosphere. Chemicals contained in the waste generate vapors. Washington River Protection Solutions has a comprehensive industrial hygiene program that monitors chemical vapors in the tank farms and in recent years WRPS has taken a number of steps to reduce potential vapor exposures to its workers.
External Affairs Manager
Washington River Protection Solutions