The continuing series of workplace safety incidents at Hanford -- just last week six more workers received medical attention after breathing toxic vapors -- shines a light on a little-known exception for the government-owned nuclear waste site in southeastern Washington.
MORE: 6 Hanford workers get medical treatment after vapor exposure
Unlike every other workplace in the state -- from the BP oil refinery at Cherry Point to corporate offices in downtown Seattle -- the 586 square mile Hanford Site is exempt from federal and state workplace safety oversight and enforcement.
Cold War era safety law still on the books
A 1954 law, the Atomic Energy Act, puts Hanford outside of safety assurance programs followed by all other employers. When first enacted, the emphasis was on secrecy and winning the Cold War. But 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell and weapons-grade plutonium production ceased Hanford remains out of reach to trained workplace safety experts and the laws that back them up.
"Isolation, secrecy, privilege, lack of accountability; all these things are hallmarks of the Cold War and are still alive and well in the Department of Energy," said Bob Alvarez, a nuclear policy expert based in Washington D.C. who has advised Congress and the White House on waste policy. Alvarez is a former high ranking Dept. of Energy official as well.
“We are not waging the Cold War anymore. Those days are long gone but we have a system in place (at defense nuclear weapons sites) that still operates with those kinds of standards and conduct and behavior,” said Alvarez.
Hanford workers and experts alike told KREM 2's sister station KING because no one from the outside can hold the government contractors at the site accountable for safety failures – they’re left to fend for themselves and are at greater risk.
WATCH: For injured Hanford workers, it's one denial after another
“The exposures keep happening year after year and decade after decade. How many people have to get hurt? If (DOE were regulating effectively) you wouldn’t see another 34 people exposed in the last several weeks at the Hanford Site. Clearly something is broken and something’s not working,” said Tom Carpenter, Director of the citizen watchdog group, Hanford Challenge.
“And there are no consequences,” said Alvarez.
Self-policing by the DOE
Workplace safety at Hanford is entirely controlled by the Department of Energy (DOE). Despite the fact that Hanford is the most contaminated workplace in the country, employees of Washington state's Department of Labor & Industries aren't allowed onto the Site to enforce rules handed down by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. State inspectors can't investigate vapor exposures, order Hanford management to improve safety protocols such as requiring the use of respirators and other protective equipment, or levy fines when safety rules aren't followed.
READ: Buried study sounded alarm about Hanford vapors
“I can’t help but have grave concerns of how the Hanford fiasco is handled,” said one state safety compliance officer who wished to remain anonymous. “I could not fathom how it could not only go on but how sluggish and minimal the response seemed (to be). (We) would have pounced on this if we had any jurisdiction, which we don’t.”
The state’s top official for occupational health and safety, Anne Soiza of Labor and Industries, said she’s not seen this many people needing medical attention for a reoccurring circumstance in her career with the state of Washington.
“It hasn’t happened that I am aware of and I have been at L and I on and off for over 28 years,” said Soiza. “And so having multiple people seek medical attention definitely catches our attention as an agency…it concerns us,” said Soiza.
Expert advice discarded by DOE
A safety regime enforced by non-Department of Energy employees, is exactly what experts have been urging for decades. In 1995 a Department of Energy advisory panel concluded that "self-regulation has failed" at Hanford and other nuclear defense sites across the country. The next year, a group of senior Energy Department managers recommended that OSHA or another outside group be put in charge of worker safety. In 1992, a former head of OSHA, Morton Corn, concluded that the failure to solve vapor exposure problems at Hanford would have been considered a “willful violation” of federal law by OSHA, subjecting management there to “possible criminal penalties”.
History of failed attempts at change
*1993 - The transition to outside policing of its health and safety program was put into motion in when then-Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary announced the Department would seek external regulation for worker safety.
*1994 - Legislation was proposed and hearings were held to externally regulate DOE nuclear safety.
*1996 - The Dept. of Energy endorsed recommendations to phase out its self-regulation practices over a 10 year period.
*1997 - The DOE embarked on a two-year pilot program to simulate regulation by OSHA at selected facilities. Follow up reports by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), found success in the pilot.
*1998 - The DOE reaffirmed its commitment to external regulation to the GAO by writing it would submit legislation to allow outside policing for certain DOE locations.
*1999 - DOE position abruptly changed. Then-Secretary Bill Richardson wrote to two congressional committees to say he was scrapping the idea. In a July, 1999 GAO report, investigators wrote “The areas of disagreement cited by the Secretary included the value added by external regulation….(and) The high potential costs and the uncertainties associated with the transition.”
A DOE spokesperson told KING they are not considering OSHA oversight of its worker safety program, contending that DOE's regulations are "more protective of worker health and safety."
Energy also says its safety performance is "better than comparable industry performance."
Sick Worker: "My whole world has changed"
Third-party enforcement of safety rules could have prevented what happened to Diana Gegg, a longtime Hanford worker who was one of the few women heavy equipment operators at the site. In 2007, she was operating a bulldozer in one of Hanford's tank farms. She was unaware that some waste from a tank had spilled on the ground.
"I kept smelling this chlorine, ammonia type smell," Gegg said.
Gegg unknowingly inhaled poisonous gases for several hours before an alarm sounded to take cover. She was left with brain damage, sudden tremors, vision loss and dementia -- conditions the government admits were caused by her exposure to toxic vapors.
This once active mother, grandmother and full-time worker can no longer drive, cook or hold any sort of employment because of her loss of memory and concentration. If she leaves the house, she uses a motorized wheelchair due to limited energy and a lack of balance.
"This was like having the rug jerked out from underneath me," Gegg said. "As time goes by, I don't know what I won't be able to do next. I wasn't in a wheelchair when this happened, I was a worker."
Outside experts say the Energy Department is able to ignore safety recommendations because it is, in effect, its own regulator.
"We gotta have some change here. That means we have to have an enforcement regime that makes them do things," said Carpenter.
“They speed the work up and skip safety precautions to get the job done,” said a former Hanford worker.
In 2010, Carpenter co-authored a study recommending that air scrubber systems be installed on stacks venting the waste tanks. The technology is meant to remove poisonous gases from the vapors before they are released into the open air where workers routinely carry out their duties.
"It's simple technology. It's not rocket science. Again, a lot of chemical sites use these things, but not at Hanford," said Carpenter. "They're deemed just too expensive and they just said, 'No,' out of hand. They're not going to do it."
Dept. of Energy gets enforcement powers
In 2002, Congress began the process of providing authority to the DOE to administer its own enforcement actions against government contractors for health and safety problems. By 2008, the regulation was in place which provided the DOE with the needed tools to investigate and take action.
Here is an excerpt of from the Code of Federal Regulations:
“The Secretary may issue to any contractor a Compliance Order that:
*Identifies a situation that violates, potentially violates, or otherwise is inconsistent with the requirement of this (regulation).
*Mandates a remedy, work stoppage, or other action.
*A contractor that…violates any requirement of this part shall be subject to a civil penalty of up to $70,000 for each such violation.
A DOE spokesperson wrote to KING to say the enforcement division has been active.
“Since the start of the worker safety and health enforcement program in 2008, the Office of Enforcement has issued 17 notices of violation, three consent orders, and 14 enforcement letters to Department contractors (across the country) for safety and health violations of Part 851,” wrote the spokesperson.
Yet KING 5 has found that no action has ever been taken under the regulation with respect to vapor exposures at Hanford.
“They (DOE) were given this authority by Congress and it’s like the watchdog has been chained to the dog house,” said Alvarez, who helped craft the legislation. “While it was passed into law, the DOE basically dropped dead, didn’t do anything about it, did not rise to the occasion, did not take advantage of this authority.”
The DOE told KING 5 its tank farm contractor has not been found in violation of any requirements to keep their workers safe.
“DOE has not identified violations or exposures above the DOE limits which would warrant enforcement actions against the tank farms contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions. The Office of Enforcement recently investigated specific worker concerns associated with occupational exposure monitoring and record keeping at the tank farms and did not identify any significant safety concerns,” wrote the DOE spokesperson.
I have no information that the Department of Energy isn’t doing the right thing and is not in there right now helping the contractor to prevent further exposures,” said Soiza of Washington State Labor and Industries. “But is it frustrating that possibly other workers are still getting exposed to possibly the same situation? Yes. As a safety and health professional, as with all of my staff, that would be a frustrating situation. “
Congressman Adam Smith (D-Seattle), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he would consider helping to amend the 1954 Atomic Energy Act to give OSHA oversight of Hanford worker safety.
“In 2014 everyone knows what’s going on at Hanford, so there’s really no national security issue here and if OSHA can better provide for safety then that’s something we ought to consider,” said Smith.
But those changes would be too late for Gegg and other workers who were injured on the job at Hanford.
"I feel like I've fought a Cold War and the government's left me behind," Gegg said.
The US Dept. of Energy sent KING the following statement for inclusion in this report:
"Worker safety is a top priority for the Department of Energy. DOE has stronger safety regulations and has consistently demonstrated superior safety performance than the comparable industry averages. DOE also has a strong oversight and enforcement role that has taken enforcement actions against DOE contractors as appropriate. DOE has worked with WRPS to devise and implement improvements to enhance the health and safety of the tank farm workers over the years. For example, there are safety measures in place such as active ventilation with increase flow rates; stack extensions to displace vapor emissions; specific vapor control and reduction zones to minimize exposure; chemical hazard awareness training for workers; and, improved availability of personal protective equipment to workers."