The U.S. Department of Energy ought to protect exposed workers at the Hanford nuclear complex before a state lawsuit forces its hand.

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THE U.S. Department of Energy and its contractor have been too careless in protecting its Hanford tank-farm workers.

Consequently, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson intends to sue the department to provide better safeguards for workers cleaning up its nuclear tank farms.

Hanford’s nearly 60 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste — some of it so old that it was produced for the World War II-era Manhattan Project — makes it the worst nuclear contamination site in the nation, and the second worst in the world behind Chernobyl.

Leaks from its aging storage tanks continue to be a dangerously common occurrence.

Appeals from Washington and Oregon officials for expedited federal cleanup of the facility and heightened oversight prompted a federal court to mandate a scheduled cleanup. But the Energy Department has cited high costs and logistical difficulties for delays that have put the cleanup far behind schedule.

At the tank farm, as many as 300 workers have been exposed to and suffered from noxious vapor releases.

While discussing a federal report on Hanford worker safety problems — initiated by Washington River Protection Solutions, the private contractor managing the tank farms — state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said that exposure to the inadequately stored materials and the vapors released has left many workers with long-term disabilities.

The litany of symptoms reported include: nosebleeds, headaches, watery eyes, burning skin, increased heart rate, respiratory difficulties, coughing, dizziness and nausea.

While the federal government is responsible for cleaning the site, it is just as responsible for the safety of the people doing that hazardous work.

The Energy Department maintained in a recent statement that it is “committed to protecting workers.” However, workers at the Hanford complex, which stores about two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste, have been harmed.

Given that Ferguson’s pending legal action requires a 90-day review period before he can proceed, the Energy Department has plenty of time to turn its words into deeds.

The time for excuses is long past. The Energy Department must use this window to finally safeguard Hanford workers and protect the general public.

Information in this editorial, originally published Nov. 30, 2014, was corrected Dec. 4, 2014. A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a claim about long-term disabilities among workers exposed to toxic materials to a federal report on worker-safety problems. It is attributed to Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.