In response to a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the federal government has agreed to take measures to keep workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation safe from chemicals.
In the settlement agreement, the government will test new technology to destroy tank vapors and install vapor monitoring to protect workers from exposure.
Ferguson said that the agreement could dramatically change things for workers at Hanford’s tank farms, where they have been exposed to leaking vapors for decades.
The 177 tanks contain 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemicals wastes that were byproducts of Hanford’s production of plutonium for weapons.
When the lawsuit was filed in 2015, Ferguson brought attention to the hundreds of worker who became sick from breathing in the toxic gases that escaped from the tanks. They experienced nosebleeds, difficulty breathing, headaches and other health issues.
Abe Garza, who worked as an instrument technician at Hanford for 34 years, said he developed lung, heart and kidney problems after inhaling the vapors. He said he wanted the agreement to prevent other workers from developing the same health issues.
“It’s time the Department of Energy faced up to the fact people are getting sick, instead of trying to deny it,” he said.
“We’re finally moving towards a lasting solution,” Ferguson said, adding that the federal government had failed workers for years. “We should not have had to file a lawsuit. It shouldn’t have come to this.”
Yvonne Levardi, a Department of Energy spokeswoman for its Hanford office, said the agency is happy with the agreement.
“We’ve acknowledged there is still room for us to continue to improve,” she said. The energy department’s priority, she said, was to work together with the contractor to “make sure the workers are safe and comfortable with the safety measures in place.”
The cleanup at Hanford has been occurring for more than a quarter of a century. The nuclear site made most of country’s plutonium during World War II and the Cold War. The Energy Department is currently building a plant to treat Hanford’s wastes and it’s expected to cost approximately $17 billion.
The plant will turn the wastes into a more stable form for storage through a process called vitrification.