Dizziness, rapid heart rate and nosebleeds have been the symptoms experienced by 24 sickened workers over the past two weeks at the beleaguered Hanford Nuclear waste treatment plant in Eastern Washington, according to a Wednesday report on King5 News.
The unexplained illnesses started occurring on March 19, which was close to the time state officials filed an aggressive plan with the US Department of Energy to force compliance of a 2010 nuclear waste cleanup deadline after renewed urgency was caused by leaking storage tanks discovered two years ago.
Approximately one month prior to Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to force a showdown with the DOE a second influential whistleblower was fired from Hanford.
Donna Busche, manager of environmental and nuclear safety, who filed several complaints about safety concerns at the plant, was fired in February and a 44 year Hanford veteran Walter Tamosaitis was fired last October after raising concerns about potential dangers.
Both contend they were fired for doing their jobs.
The recent spate of mystery illnesses triggered by unidentified vapors that caused several Hanford employees to be rushed to the hospital in ambulances, initiated a stop work action on Monday that will take 500 workers off the job until conditions have been improved.
The vapors have been linked to several large storage tanks holding some of the most lethal radioactive sludge on the planet.
Most of the workers impacted are employed by Mission Support Alliance and include everything from crane operators to security and fire protection personnel.
Fred Rumsey, one of the workers involved in the stop work action told King5 News that he was “fed up” with the lack of communication from the DOE and Washington River Protection Solutions, which is a contractor responsible for managing tank operations.
Many workers were reluctant to join a stop work action with Hanford’s history of contractors retaliating against whistleblowers.
The action will not be rescinded, said Rumsey, until two conditions are met, which include contractor presentations to impart factual and timely information to the workforce regarding the vapor incidents and the implementation of established communication protocals.
According to King5 Hanford investigative journalist Susannah Frame, the reinstatement of a Chemical Vapors Safety Team has been promised by WRPS president Dave Olson, which should “improve hazard analysis, controls and response.”
Critics question how such a safety-oriented team could have been eliminated in the first place, but last year’s sequestration resulted in numerous employee layoffs and furloughs.
Hanford is a decommissioned plutonium plant that produced radioactive material for nuclear bombs starting in 1943.
Over 70 years later, Hanford’s underground caverns contain 177 gigantic steel storage tanks over 200 square acres near the Columbia River, with 6 identified as having slow leaks that ooze hazardous material.
Hanford has become the nuclear waste canker sore for Washington politicians, like Sen. Patty Murray, who has to battle congress for funding to clean it up.
No one has died from inhaling hazardous vapors yet, but perhaps fear for human health will be more affective in getting action at Hanford than fear of potential environmental devastation.