Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s bold lawsuit should sharpen the attention of U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on the health of workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation.
THE Hanford nuclear reservation’s fortunes tracked with the highs and lows of the Cold War. After 1987, the critical work of cleaning up decades of waste from the production of weapons-grade plutonium spelled new, unanticipated challenges.
On Wednesday, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy and one of its contractors, Washington River Protection Solutions. The litigation alleges that hazardous vapors from some of Hanford’s 177 underground storage tanks pose a significant health risk to tank-farm workers.
Hanford Challenge, a health and safety watchdog, is filing a separate lawsuit.
The federal government’s record of delay and inaction is a disgrace. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a physicist by training who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal, must step up and pour his attention into protecting the health of Hanford workers.
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When Groundhog Day meets Kafka, it looks something like this: Authorities have known about concerns over hazardous vapors since 1992. The Energy Department has issued 19 reports on worker safety in 23 years. That’s a lot of dead trees with little to show for it.
According to the state attorney general’s lawsuit, at least 50 tank-farm workers over the past year have required medical attention for on-site vapor exposure. Similar health complaints date back almost three decades. There’s also no real-time monitoring of the 3,000 different types of hazardous waste in each tank. Doctors can’t treat a worker’s lung ailment or neurological disorder if they can’t even narrow down the specific chemicals causing the problem.
Unlike past lawsuits or the 2010 consent decree that imposed an enforceable schedule for cleaning up Hanford’s 56 million gallons of highly radioactive waste, this is the first state litigation related to worker health.
Ferguson said he wants accountability and specificity to protect workers. An enforceable document trumps a quarter century of false promises.
Ferguson’s leadership should galvanize Washington’s congressional delegation and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, in particular. As the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Murray could ratchet pressure on the Obama Administration.
Secretary Moniz’s top priority must be cleaning up the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere, while protecting the men and women who labor to do that every day.