Lawmakers pledge action for Hanford workers

Credit: KING 5 News

Sen. Maria Cantwell says she is willing to hold up a key Department of Energy nomination to ensure Congress gets answers about worker safety at Hanford.

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

kgw.com

Posted on May 22, 2014 at 9:30 AM

Updated Thursday, May 22 at 10:27 AM

Washington state's most powerful members of Congress are pledging to help protect workers at the Hanford Site, especially those workers who become sick after being exposed to toxic chemicals on the job. Medical evidence shows that even short exposures to those poisonous gases can cause serious, including fatal, diseases.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he wants answers from the Department of Energy after watching KING 5's series of reports. That committee has some jurisdiction over what goes on at Hanford.

"There's a lot of issues out there, and your reporting actually brought this to our attention and it's something we want to be focused on and try to be helpful with as quickly as we can," Smith said.

KING 5 reported on repeated expert opinions going back two decades urging more personal protective gear and prevention technologies to keep workers safe. But the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractors have failed to implement many of the initiatives.

In addition, KING reported that workers who develop illnesses linked to their employment at Hanford often struggle to win the medical and disability benefits they are due. Workers say they see their claims denied as a matter of course. Those who succeed in winning them do so only after a lengthy appeals process.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) said she's unhappy with the state of workplace safety at the site and is willing to hold up the nomination of a top Energy Department official to make her point. Cantwell said she would consider pursuing congressional hearings if the Department of Energy doesn’t come up with satisfactory answers to her questions and solutions to the problems.

"We're certainly willing to have the hearings too because we want the health and safety of those workers to be guaranteed and want them to have good care too so that process has to work well," she said.

Like Cantwell, Sen. Patty Murray (D) said she is pressuring the Energy Department to find answers now and would consider legislation to force action if it becomes necessary.

"Having said that, it's hard to get anything through in Congress, so I don't want to promise something and it be five years down the road," she said. "So I want everyone to be doing their jobs right now, which is to protect those workers."

Hanford is owned by the Department of Energy, which took over the former plutonium production site from the Pentagon decades ago to begin a multi-decade project to permanently dispose of contaminated land, buildings, equipment and millions of gallons of highly toxic and radioactive sludge.

The waste poses a constant risk to workers, but KING 5's reporting showed that workers are not always encouraged to wear the appropriate protective equipment. Twenty-eight workers required medical care in a six-week period in March and April after breathing toxic vapors at the Hanford tank farms. Several required hospital care and report they continue to experience health problems -- especially headaches, breathing difficulty and fatigue.

The vapor exposures this year are nothing new and are not the only dangers at the site. Workers have been exposed to dangerous materials at Hanford since plutonium production began there during World War II.

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