SEATTLE — A national advocacy group for sickened nuclear workers plans to push the federation government to recognize Hanford employees who wore faulty respirators for years as eligible for financial benefits.
A Seattle Times investigation on Sunday revealed that CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Company supplied 560 cleanup workers at Hanford's highly contaminated Plutonium Finishing Plant with modified respirators that leaked between 2012 and October 2016. But the company acknowledged alerting only 150 of them, and not telling workers who had left the company before the flaw was discovered in late 2016.
Changes made to the respirators were intended to secure air filters, which frequently were knocked askew in tight working conditions. But the round, rubber "bumper guards" that were installed on the units at Hanford were not approved by federal regulators or the respirator's manufacturer, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Seattle Times.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement she was "deeply disturbed to learn some of (the workers') equipment was modified in such a way that jeopardized the safety of hundreds of workers, many who are just learning of their potential exposure."
"We must get to the bottom of this to understand exactly what happened and put the right policies in place to prevent future missteps that might cause harm — whether at Hanford, or on the frontlines of our current crisis."
"I will continue to work with our state and federal partners, as well as contractors, to ensure each and every man and woman at the Hanford site is guaranteed the safest working conditions," U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, whose district includes Hanford, said in a statement.
While Murray and Newhouse didn't specify steps to help the affected workers, an advocacy organization did.
Terrie Barrie, of the nationwide Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, which helps nuclear installation workers who get sick from on-the-job exposures, said Tuesday she plans to petition the federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP) to designate workers at the Plutonium Finishing Plant who wore the faulty respirators as candidates for benefits.
The federal compensation program provides disability payments to workers in areas at nuclear sites with a recorded history of high hazards and who contract certain types of cancer. Barrie intends to present the petition to the EEOICP board at its next meeting in August. The process of determining whether the Hanford workers who wore the leaky respirators will be added to the recognized federal list for benefits could take up to four years, Barrie said.
Hanford for more than 40 years produced most of the plutonium for the nation's nuclear arsenal, but has now become the site of a marathon, still-unfinished cleanup. The Plutonium Finishing Plant, a sprawling complex that was a vital cog in the production, is home to some of the most-contaminated buildings.
Some of the Plutonium Finishing Plant workers who did not receive notice of potential exposure to radioactive or chemical hazards are now experiencing illnesses, and wondering whether the faulty respirators are to blame. Bill Evans Jr., 45, left his job on the cleanup project after experiencing a seizure at work in 2016, mere months before the leak in the respirators was discovered.
Evans' sometimes violent seizures forced him to leave his $170,000-a-year job. He now requires full-time care from his wife and worries that they'll lose their Richland home to foreclosure after paying for medications.
A state-run program for nuclear workers approved Evans' benefits claim,entitling him to about 60% of his old salary, but CH2M Hill's insurance pool, administered by the U.S. Department of Energy, is appealing. Meanwhile, Evans survives on $2,100 a month in Social Security benefits.
"They're sick. That's what workers' compensation was set up for, to take that burden off of them, get them the medical care and the financial benefits so they can keep on living — buy their food, pay their rent," Barrie said. "For the Department of Energy to actively contest these claims is horrible. They're not protecting the worker, they're protecting the contractor, and that's wrong."