Hanford workers to get protection from toxic vapors under 'historic' agreement

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SEATTLE - The federal government has agreed to deploy equipment that will destroy hazardous vapors that threaten workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Wednesday.

The "historic" agreement comes three years after Washington state sued the U.S. Department of Energy over the issue, Ferguson said, and marks the first time in the history of the Hanford reservation that nuclear waste tank vapors will be destroyed or captured at their source, thereby eliminating the danger to workers.

"This is a major victory for the brave men and women working to clean up the Hanford nuclear reservation,” Ferguson said. “This is an historic outcome, but let’s be honest - it should not have required a lawsuit to get the federal government to do the right thing.”

The Department of Energy, which operates the Hanford site, previously attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed by alleging that not enough workers were getting sick for the state to file a lawsuit. The court rejected that attempt in November 2016, and the federal government began working with the state to hammer out an agreement.

Under terms of that legally binding agreement, the Department of Energy will test technology protecting workers from hazardous fumes over the next three years. If testing is successful, the technology must be implemented.

The federal government has also agreed to improve sharing of information regarding vapor events, worker protections, worker health monitoring and medical surveillance.

The tanks at the Hanford site contain more than 50 million gallons of waste left from the past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

At least 19 reports have been issued on tank vapors and exposures since the 1980s. A 2014 study commissioned by the Energy Department warned that not enough was being done to protect workers from harm.

Some 1,500 different volatile chemical gases — many of which are highly toxic and known carcinogens — have been found in Hanford’s tanks. Exposure to these chemicals causes numerous harmful health impacts including lung disease, central nervous system suppression, nerve damage and cancers of the liver, lung, blood and other organs.

Six months after Ferguson filed his lawsuit on worker safety, more than 50 workers were exposed to toxic vapors at Hanford in April and May 2016. Ferguson sought a preliminary injunction asking the court to immediately order the Energy Department to implement enhanced safety and vapor monitoring measures.

Immediately afterward, the federal government finally implemented safety measures, including placing all workers on supplied air in the tank farms.

The new agreement will increase the safety margin even more, by eliminating vapors at the source.

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