NBC Right Now spoke with Washington River Protection Solutions Thursday in their first on-camera interview since 26 workers reported exposure to vapors over the last three weeks.
KENNEWICK, WA - NBC Right Now spoke with Washington River Protection Solutions Thursday in their first on-camera interview since 26 workers reported exposure to vapors over the last three weeks.
It's taken weeks to get WRPS, the DOE contractor cleaning up the nuclear waste tank farms, to agree to an on-camera interview.
On Thursday, they were candid with us about the concerns surrounding the 26 workers who reported exposure to chemical vapors in recent weeks.
NBC Right Now reporter, Jane Sander, asked WRPS manager John McDonald several questions.
"Was there an incident that caused chemical vapor exposure at the tank farms?," asked Sander.
"Yes. Definitely. Multiple events," said McDonald.
There are 1,800 chemicals in the nuclear waste at the Hanford tank farms. And 59 of those are called "chemicals of concern" that pose the biggest health risks. The wide range of chemicals makes it difficult to know what's making workers sick.
"We don't really have exact answers for the sources of these things. When we go out there we don't have much that we can detect with our instrumentation," McDonald said.
"So you can't necessarily pinpoint where these vapors are coming from for each of these reports?," Sander asked.
"No. That's a correct statement," said McDonald.
When workers smell chemical vapors, WRPS has a protocol for evacuation that they call conservative.
"We'll vacate the area, vacate the farm, close the farm. Then what we'll do is we'll assess the workers. If there's a situation where somebody has a problem with say coughing or something with a sore throat with smelling something, then we'll get them to the medical facility at the site or if it's more serious we may call the Hanford Fire Department ambulance to take them to the hospital," McDonald said.
McDonald explains that workers' sense of smell exceeds the ability to detect the vapors with instruments in the field.
"Do the levels need to be changed to reflect the levels of people saying they're getting sick at?," Sander asked.
"Well we're certainly doing a hard look at our program right now to see if there's anything we need to change," McDonald responded.
To significantly reduce exposure to vapors, McDonald says workers would need to wear air tanks and respirators that can impair workers' sight, hearing and movement.
When asked about what monitors are on site to detect vapors, McDonald said technicians typically have devices and workers can wear personal monitors. He says the personal monitors will show the workers what they smelled after the fact. But McDonald said he wasn't sure if workers consistently wore them.
Hanford workers that Sander spoke with, who want to remain anonymous out of fear of losing their job, tell her they're afraid to report vapors.
When McDonald was asked if there are any consequences for workers reporting safety concerns, he said no, and added, "We have a zero tolerance for retaliation for such as bringing up a safety concern."
WRPS says they plan to bring in independent experts to assess their policies and improve how they respond to vapor exposures in the future.