Sick Hanford workers speak out for first time

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

KREM.com

Posted on April 9, 2014 at 9:08 AM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 9 at 9:21 AM

Exposure to potentially harmful chemical vapors sent 26 workers at the Hanford Site to a Richland hospital or an on-site medical clinic in the two-week period starting March 19.

For the first time, two of those workers talk on camera with KREM 2's sister station KING 5 about their experience -- and the symptoms and problems they continue to exhibit nearly two weeks after breathing in vapors that vented from underground tanks and pipes that hold vast amounts of toxic chemicals and radioactive isotopes.

On March 19 health physics technician Steve Ellingson and a partner were near the AY and AZ tank farms at Hanford when they noticed a chemical smell.

"It got really bad. We could smell it, we could taste it. It has a coppery taste," Ellingson said. "We both started to have problems with our chest and our throats."

They exited the area after the smell seemed to get worse. Afterward, he said he couldn't get the taste of out his mouth, and he began to experience nausea.

Over the next few days, Ellingson said he was evaluated at the on-site medical clinic, at a local emergency room and by his own doctor. None could find the cause for his symptoms, which he said worsened after the first day, with lung irritation, violent coughing and fatigue continuing to this day.

"It's like I can't get a good deep breath. It's like a shallow breath all of the time," he told KING 5 two weeks after the exposure.

Becky Holland, also a health physics technician at Hanford, breathed chemical vapors a week later while working with a team at the T tank farm. The group was preparing to shoot video of the inside of one of the waste storage tanks.

After a riser cover was removed, Holland said the group began to smell fumes. The group moved upwind to escape the smell, but the fumes only seemed to get worse -- even workers wearing respirators reported they could smell it. An emergency evacuation order was issued.

Holland said he began to feel bad immediately. "I started feeling kind of numb, my face, and instant headache," Holland said. "And then I started shaking really bad and sweating. It scared me."

A 28-year veteran of the Hanford Site, Holland said, "I've smelled things before. I've been exposed to things before, but never been exposed to something or been affected the way that I was [on March 26]."

Holland was rushed to Kadlec Medical Center in Richland. "I was scared. I was shaking. I was profusely sweating and [had] a horrible headache," she said.

She was evaluated and released the same day. The headache continued, she said, and the next day she began to experience nosebleeds so severe and persistent that she later had the inside of her nose cauterized.

"I've never experienced anything this bad," Holland said.

"I've walked through this stuff a hundred times," said Ellingson, a 22-year Hanford veteran. "I've tasted it. I've smelled it and it's never bothered me. But now for two weeks I've had trouble and I don't like it."

Cleared for work

The 586-square-mile Hanford Site is home to 177 tanks holding the waste generated by more than four decades of plutonium production -- a messy process that involves using caustic chemicals to dissolve nuclear reactor fuel rods to extract small amounts of plutonium. Twenty-five years after plutonium production ceased at the site, 56 million gallons of highly radioactive chemical waste remains to be treated for long-term storage. The tanks hold chemicals such as ammonia, butanol, formaldehyde and mercury. Much of the waste actively emits gas, which is vented through filters designed to remove radioactive particles. Chemicals, however, often pass through.

All 26 workers who reported being exposed to chemical vapors starting on March 19 were quickly cleared to return to work by the on-site clinic.

Five days after she breathed in chemical vapors at the T farm, Holland said she went to the HPMC clinic. She told the clinic staff that she was still experiencing symptoms, but said she was shocked at the medical professional’s response: "I was offended," Holland said. "Almost like, you're making this up. 'Here's some Tylenol and a throat lozenge and get to work.'"

"I feel like it was the wrong thing to do to send me back to work after I told them how I felt and people [had] made comments that I didn't look like I felt good," Holland said.

Ellingson said he was surprised by his own experience at HPMC. His lung function has been weak since his exposure, he said. When an HPMC health care provider checked his blood oxygen level, Ellingson said "they made me sit there and take deeper breaths until they released me to go."

In other words, Ellingson said he believes he was being coached to breathe harder so the blood oxygen level would cross a minimum reading. After that, he was released for duty.

HPMC is a private contractor that began serving Hanford workers in 2012. It is paid $11 million annually to provide an array of occupational health services to more than 10,000 workers at the site at its on-site clinic and in Richland.

Both workers said they believe HPMC is under pressure to get workers back to duty, even at the expense of their health.

"I think, politically, it's good for them. ... I think there's pressure from other organizations [at Hanford] to send us back to work without restriction," Ellingson said.

"I think that's part of their job ... get them in and out of there, get them clear to get back to work. It's like the fox guarding the hen house, I think," Holland said.

According to a statement provided to KING 5 by HPMC's occupational medical director, the clinic's guiding mission is to ensure worker health and safety.

“Decisions on an employee’s ability to return to work are based on an evaluation of their condition and the providers' medical opinion. If an employee is too sick to work, they should work with their medical provider to determine when it is appropriate for them to work. As medical providers, our highest priority is the employee’s health. That is the top consideration as we determine when and under what conditions an employee may return to work,” said Dr. Karen Phillips of HPMC.

Holland also said that a good worker safety record is important to her employer, Washington River Protection Solutions. "A year ago the company had almost 7 million hours without a lost work day. It’s a big deal. It looks great on their safety record. They can publicize it, advertise it," she said.

Nearly all of the workers who breathed chemical vapors are employed by WRPS, which has the contract to manage the 177 nuclear waste tanks at Hanford. For its part, WRPS says it is taking steps to identify the source of the vapor releases and is committed to worker safety.

The company also said it plays no role in evaluating workers who are screened for on-the-job injury. "WRPS is not pressuring workers to return to work and is not involved in the determination of when an employee is medically released to work," the company said in a statement sent to KING 5. "Workers also have the option to seek additional medical treatment by a physician of their choice at any time." (Read the full statement.)

Speaking the truth

As of Tuesday, none of the 26 workers knows exactly what he or she inhaled during the separate vapor incidents. But most are back on the job.

When Holland visited the HPMC on Tuesday, she said the medical staff reversed its decision on her health status. The original designation of “cleared for return to work” is “not cleared to return to work." HPMC staff also offered her a ride home because she might not be well enough to operate a motor vehicle. Ellingson, meanwhile, has not returned to the worksite, but is still classified as cleared for duty by HPMC. He said he continues to struggle with respiratory problems, coughing and flu-like symptoms.

Both said they chose to speak to KING 5 because they believe Hanford officials are painting a rosy picture of what happened at the site starting March 19.

Ellingson said he believes WRPS's statements made it sound like all of the 26 workers were healthy and back to work. "If it's going to save people by us saying something, I'd sure like to see people get a better deal. I know I don't want to be like this," he said.

"The lack of concern for the employees, something definitely needs to change and I feel like the leaders need to start leading," Holland said.

Both also said that in their view, the U.S. Department of Energy is ultimately responsible for everything that happens at Hanford.

"Clearly, the federal government made the mess at Hanford, and I think they should be held responsible to clean it up and ... hire contractors who are ethical and put safety first," Holland said.

"I believe that money is the most important thing out there," Ellingson said. "I think there are people who are seriously concerned about our health, but I also believe that money is the driving force of everything that happens at Hanford."

The U.S. Department of Energy owns Hanford and has awarded contracts to both WRPS to manage the tank farms and HPMC to deliver health services. Late Tuesday the Energy Department offered the following statement:

“Safety is the top priority for the Department of Energy and our contractors.  In our commitment to continuous improvement with a constant focus on worker safety and wellbeing, the Department works with Washington River Protection Solutions, as well as other outside agencies such as U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the evaluation of emerging technologies and new protocols to ensure workers receive the best available resources to safely accomplish their mission.”

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