RICHLAND, Benton County — Bill Evans Jr. worked on the front lines of the Hanford cleanup. He supervised crews tasked with dismantling tanks, uncoupling pipes and painting over surfaces to stanch the spread of radioactive particles inside some of the most hazardous buildings at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.
To keep themselves safe, they donned full-body protective suits, sometimes two. Battery-charged respirators hung by their sides, circulating filtered air through breathing tubes and into hoods.
In May 2016, seven years into his Hanford career, Evans had a seizure on his lunch break that left him dazed. It was the first of many that forced him to stop working. Since then, repeated seizures have overtaken his life, resulting in falls that dislocated his jaw, fractured his spine and sent him crashing through a glass pane that gashed his head and required 30 stitches.
Evans, 45, is convinced that the sudden onset of his illness was linked to his job. Last year, he got a surprising clue about what might have gone wrong. A document from his old employer, slipped to him by a colleague, stated that a respirator cartridge Evans frequently used had a bad seal caused by changes made to the gear at Hanford, and possibly exposed him to radioactive and chemical contamination.
“I was floored, surprised and angry,” Evans said. “Because I trusted that equipment. That equipment was my lifeline.”
Evans was one of an estimated 560 workers at the Plutonium Finishing Plant between 2012 and October 2016 who wore respirator gear that may have leaked, according to documents obtained by The Seattle Times. The project contractor, CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Company, told workers on the job site about the safety lapse, which was also detailed in a November 2016 letter to be placed in affected workers’ medical files.
But the contractor did not directly reach out to workers, like Evans, who had already left the job, according to a spokesman for CH2M Hill. The letter ended up in the files of only 150.
“Why wouldn’t they contact me?” said Scott Caylor, a retired Hanford worker who left the Plutonium Finishing Plant in 2015 and suffers from shortness of breath. “I would want to be made aware of the exposure, and get checked out. I think that’s reasonable.”
The Hanford site was founded during World War II in the secret push to create an atomic bomb, and for more than 40 years produced most of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal. In this century, Hanford has been the focal point of a marathon cleanup.
Since the beginning, Hanford has exacted a human toll, prompting concerns that safety has been compromised in the push to get the job done. The revelation of the faulty respirators, untold until now, underscores that those concerns persist and that suffering continues, along with mounting financial costs.
This also offers hard lessons learned for the post-coronavirus world. The same type of protection used at the Plutonium Finishing Plant – powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) – also is used by some health care workers to protect them from contracting COVID-19. And, the experience at Hanford shows how gear modifications that are not fully vetted with manufacturers can leave those who wear them more vulnerable to exposure.
It can be difficult to link medical problems like Evans’ to on-the-job exposures. So far, Evans’ doctors have not made a connection.
A federal compensation program has approved 20,740 claims from 11,829 Hanford workers — many employed there when the complex was still operating — and their surviving relatives. Over the past two decades, the program has paid out more than $1.3 billion to Hanford workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
A separate Washington state program presumes Hanford workers who have some forms of cancer, respiratory and neurological diseases got sick from their jobs and are due compensation.
Since the law was overhauled in 2018, more than 120 claims, including Evans’, have been approved by the state Department of Labor and Industries.
The federal Energy Department is contesting Evans’ benefits. He is hoping that the evidence of a leaking respirator will help him defeat that challenge.
The faulty respirator seals resulted from the use of rubber rings, called “bumper guards,” placed around the respirators’ disposable filter cartridge to prevent them from jarring loose, according to documents obtained by The Seattle Times. A test conducted by the contractor in October 2016 showed that one type of filter cartridge outfitted with the bumper did not leak, but a second, meant to protect against chemical and radioactive contamination, did leak.
Under federal law, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides testing and certification of respirators, but never signed off on the addition of the bumper guard.
“NIOSH does not endorse modification of cartridges as described and we were not aware that such modifications took place,” said Stephanie Stevens, a NIOSH spokesperson. Altered respirators can jeopardize worker health and safety, she said.
CH2M Hill and Department of Energy officials at Hanford told The Seattle Times that the use of the bumpers on filters was supported by MSA Safety, the respirator manufacturer.
But an internal Energy Department report reviewed by The Seattle Times found no documentation that the manufacturer greenlighted the configuration for the filter that leaked.
MSA declined to answer specific questions about CH2M Hill’s alteration of the system, saying in a statement it “is dedicated to protecting the health and safety of our customers and communities.”
In statements to The Seattle Times, CH2M Hill officials said the contractor investigated the risks that workers faced from the improperly sealed filters. Chemical and radiation monitoring of work areas and personal air samplers worn by workers did not find any exposures above regulatory limits, and that is why former workers were not contacted directly, an official said.
An Oct. 25, 2016, draft communication from CH2M Hill to workers expressed less confidence that workers weren’t harmed.
There was “no way of knowing how much exposure was received by personnel … over the last couple of years. We anticipate that exposures were low and in many circumstances less than Occupational Exposure limits, but honestly have no true way of knowing. This circumstance is truly unfortunate,” the draft memo said. “It is understood that many of you have concerns and rightly so.”
CH2M Hill officials now describe the draft memo as inaccurate because they say it was possible to determine employee exposures. The message of uncertainty was cut from the final version posted for workers.
“CH2M Hill relies on multiple systems to ensure the public and workers are safe while performing high-hazard work,” said Destry Henderson, the contractor’s communications director.
Tiring, risky work
The Plutonium Finishing Plant was a sprawling complex that grew over time to include dozens of structures to process the liquefied remains from some 20 million irradiated uranium rods into solid buttons and plutonium-oxide powder for shipment to the nation’s weapon factories.
Much of the plutonium production unfolded in large steel work stations known as “glove boxes,” some of them several stories high, with portal-like openings that allowed gloved workers to perform a multitude of tasks.
The plant shut down in 1989. The cleanup was initially scheduled to be completed by 2013 at a cost of $581 million. By the time the demolition was finished this winter, the cost had grown to nearly $1 billion. CH2M Hill, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Jacobs Engineering, was the lead contractor for the past 12 years. In December, the Department of Energy chose a different company for a $10 billion, 10-year contract for more cleanup work at Hanford.
During the takedown of the plant, the most publicized safety incidents occurred in 2017, when an air-monitoring system failed to detect contamination that migrated more than 10 miles. More than 40 workers ingested or inhaled radioactive particles, triggering a nine-month work stoppage.
But the demolition was preceded by many years of work inside the building to take apart and haul away more than 200 glove boxes and other contaminated equipment.
More than half a dozen workers interviewed by The Seattle Times described their cleanup jobs in the Plutonium Finishing Plant as often physically tough, but also high-paying and rewarding, full of challenging tasks.
In the most polluted areas, they were outfitted with scuba-tank-like supplied air. But mostly, they said, they used the respirators that hung from their belts.
Hazards abounded: a pinhole leak in a glove-box entry, or a chip kicked loose from crumbling floor paint, could expose a worker to radioactive contamination. A 2009 assessment of the plant also identified 86 “high priority residual chemicals posing a significant risk.”
Those risks were starkly demonstrated in 2010 when a few drops of nitric acid dripped onto the properly sealed respirator filters of Wes Bunch and overwhelmed his protection. “The first thing I knew, my lungs were on fire,” recalled Bunch, who eventually underwent four surgeries to repair his esophagus and never returned to work.
For the Plutonium Finishing Plant, 2009 was a big year. The federal stimulus initiative pumped nearly $2 billion into Hanford cleanup. A surge of new employees, many with no previous experience at Hanford, doubled the workforce of finishing-plant contractor CH2M Hill.
One of those recruits was Evans, who had lost his long-distance trucking job and was eager for the opportunity to get trained as a nuclear-chemical operator.
“I lucked out,” he recalls.
Safety depended, in part, on everyone in a crew understanding the risks, and working together to minimize them. But some veterans felt that too many of their new co-workers didn’t fully grasp the dangers.
“I’m like, ‘Calm down. You need to learn to respect this stuff.’ We were so overstaffed, and so overcrowded,” said Clint Elledge, who worked at the finishing plant from 2003 to 2014.
The conditions were hard on the respirators.
Workers complained that respirator units would quit working, sometimes because batteries died, but sometimes for no apparent reason. Inspections found defects “probably caused by the rough work environment and high usage of units,” according to a February 2016 Defense Nuclear Safety Board report, requiring new respirators be given to workers as the old ones wore out.
One particular problem persisted, according to 2012 meeting minutes of the CH2M Hill Respirator Protection Committee. Workers, maneuvering in tight and crowded quarters, accidentally bumped into things. Their filter cartridges came loose or got knocked off, and they risked breathing hazardous unfiltered air as they scrambled to an exit.
Among unionized employees, this emerged as a high-profile concern, prompting talk of a possible work stoppage until it was resolved.
“They had to do something quick to find a fix. They couldn’t have all those people just sitting on their hands,” said a former plutonium-plant worker who still works at Hanford and requested anonymity due to concerns about retaliation from management.
To try to keep the cartridges in place, the contractor added a doughnut-shaped rubber ring to act as a protective bumper.
The bumper was used on two types of cartridge modules, one called a P-100 designed to keep out radioactive particles, and a second thicker one— called a Chem-OV — often used for higher-risk areas with chemical and radioactive contamination.
They were both marketed by MSA Safety, a longtime provider of mining, factory and construction respirators based in Pittsburgh. As of December, the company faced 1,605 liability lawsuits involving 2,456 claims — none of them involving Hanford workers — that its products didn’t perform properly and exposed users to hazards that may have led to diseases, according to a report to investors.
In the past three years, the company settled lawsuits with sick workers totaling $319 million, and estimates future claims could cost it an additional $167.5 million, according to the report.
As the bumper fix at Hanford was developed in 2012, MSA Safety determined that the bumper on the P-100 cartridge did not represent a “fit, form or function issue,” and therefore did not need review by federal safety regulators, according to an Energy Department report.
But there is no evidence that MSA Safety ever got a chance to scrutinize the use of the bumper with the thicker chemical cartridge, according to the Energy Department. These cartridges came in sealed packages. Workers typically would take them out of the wrappings, then screw them into the bumper-equipped respirators, according to Evans, Elledge and five other former plant workers interviewed by The Seattle Times.
Then on Oct. 21, 2016, a worker noticed spray paint had eluded the filters and penetrated his respirator. Testing showed the bumper prevented a tight seal, so the chemical filter leaked.
The use of bumpers was then discontinued. Workers on the job site were told about the test findings. Others, like Evans, who had moved on, were not.
Even before that discovery, not all workers were confident the bumpers were a good fix.
Elledge said he sometimes removed the bumpers, and put them in his pocket.
“Sometimes you got to break the rules to keep yourself safe,” Elledge said.
The seizures start
Seven years into his Hanford career, Evans was optimistic about his future. He had worked his way up from a union job to a supervisory role with a salary of more than $170,000. His wife, Tiffany, was pregnant with their son.
“I was working my tail off. I enjoyed it,” Evans recalls.
But once the seizures started, his life turned into a medical nightmare.
He now takes more than half a dozen medications to try to control his seizures. He can no longer drive, and his wife can’t hold a job because his unpredictable seizures command so much of her attention. The couple has installed cameras inside their Richland home because she is wary of leaving him alone.
Examinations and test results suggest Evans suffers from temporal lobe epilepsy as well as more generalized seizures. “But the exact cause … including his concern of toxic exposures is difficult to determine,” wrote Dr. John Christopher, a University of Washington doctor who specializes in epilepsy, in a May 2019 medical report.
The state Department of Labor and Industries has approved Evans’ workers’ compensation claim, likely entitling him to monthly payments equal to more than 60% of his old salary.
But the Energy Department, which administers an insurance pool for contractors, contends that his condition “is not attributable to occupational exposure at Hanford,” and “genuine legal doubt exists as to the employer’s liability under this claim.”
Evans also is seeking up to $250,000 in compensation through the separate federal program, but his claim has not been approved.
In the meantime, Evans says his family, which now includes his 3-year-old son, currently survives on $2,100 a month in Social Security disability payments. He says seizure medications consume a lot of it, and he fears losing their home to foreclosure.
It pains Evans that his son only knows him in his present state — dependent on his wife for care and prone to fits of vomiting, a side effect of his medications. When the boy sees Evans in distress, he rubs his father’s back, saying, “OK, Daddy. OK.”
“It gets to me every time,” Evans said. “I never want a kid to see this stuff.”
Doctors continue to investigate Evans’ illness.
Earlier this winter, Evans spent eight days at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with electrodes taped to his skull. He hoped that this monitoring would help doctors figure out how to better control the seizures.
But that was a period of relative calm. So, he left the hospital feeling like his mission was unfilled. Three days after his discharge, while staying at his mother’s house in Tacoma, he suffered another powerful seizure.