September 2, 2015 / 7:55 PM / 4 years ago

Washington state sues U.S. over toxic vapors at nuclear waste site

SEATTLE (Reuters) - The U.S. government has failed to adequately safeguard crews involved in the decades-long cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, leaving workers sickened by exposure to toxic vapors, the state said in a lawsuit filed on Wednesday.

The 18-page complaint, filed in federal court in Spokane, cited more than 50 instances since January 2014 of workers being exposed to hazardous fumes at the sprawling World War Two-era site along the Columbia River.

One worker was treated last year for chemical pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs caused by chemical exposure, the complaint said.

Hanford, occupying 586 square miles (1,517 sq km) in southeastern Washington, produced plutonium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program from 1943 to 1987 and now ranks as one of the most contaminated sites in North America.

The main activity there now is removal of 56 million gallons (212 million liters) of hazardous waste, much of it radioactive, kept in 177 underground storage tanks, a number of them with known leaks.

The U.S. Energy Department is responsible for cleanup at the site, including the hiring of contractors and workers to extract the waste from tanks for safe disposal.

As a result of lax safety practices amid leaks and releases of toxic vapors in the vicinity of the storage tanks, workers have been continually put at risk and left ill from chemical exposure, the lawsuit said.

“Enough is enough. The health risks are real, and the state is taking action today to ensure the federal government protects these workers now and in the future,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said.

Watchdog group Hanford Challenge said it believes several hundred workers have received medical treatment or evaluation due to exposures over the last 10 years.

The state is seeking a legally enforceable agreement requiring all tank-area workers to wear respiratory protection, among other safety improvements.

Ferguson announced last November that he intended to sue the federal government.

In order to further protect workers, tank farm contractor Washington River Protection Solutions has increased the use of personal protective equipment, including the use of self-contained breathing machines in areas of potential vapor exposure, Energy Department spokeswoman Carrie Meyer said.

“The Department is committed to safe and efficient work in the tank farms,” Meyer said in a statement.

Cleanup began at Hanford in 1989 and is projected to cost almost $115 billion by century’s end, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Beech

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