Friday, February 20, 2004

Workers At Risk (Still, Yet, Again) at Federal Nuclear Reservation

I wrote recently about the Department of Energy giving its contractors the authority to write their own safety and health standards. A disturbing article in the NY Times today about the health and safety conditions of workers cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation casts some doubt on the wisdom of that plan.
For almost half a century, the hulking factories across a vast nuclear reservation here churned out the plutonium for most of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, including the bomb used on Nagasaki.

But in the last several years, with the cold war long over, the shuttered silence of the nine nuclear reactors on this 586-square-mile site has been followed by one of the world's largest cleanups, costing $2 billion a year.

An army of workers numbering more than 11,000 faces the staggering cleanup task at the Hanford complex in the high desert of southeastern Washington, a project made more daunting with an accelerated timetable that slashed cleanup projections to 35 years from 70. The quicker pace has led to charges among some doctors, experts and lawmakers that speed has taken priority over worker health and safety. And some warn that, in its dormancy, the vast wasteland may pose even more danger to the cleanup workers than it did to those who built the nation's arsenal here when the complex was in full operation.
The Departments of Energy and Labor are already dealing with a generation of workers with cancer and beryllium disease. Now, some say they're creating a whole new generation.
The allegations under review by the state attorney general's office stem from a report by the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit group that represents some Hanford workers in legal actions. The report said that from 2002 through the middle of last year, there were 45 incidents in which 67 workers required medical attention because they were exposed to toxic vapors from the underground tanks.

"Hanford is in the process of creating a new generation of sick and injured workers," the report said.

Tom Peterson, 51, an ironworker rigger who has worked at Hanford for 25 years, is one of 21 workers with chronic beryllium disease, an illness unknown at the height of the cold war. Dr. Takaro said 84 more have been "sensitized," to beryllium, which means they are at high risk of contracting the full-blown disease.

"I went to work out there figuring I was going to support my family," Mr. Peterson said. "I didn't expect to go out there and be poisoned and nobody fess up to anything. If they would have told me ahead of time what I was getting into, maybe I wouldn't have taken the job."

Electricians, a group not generally thought at high risk, are among those showing symptoms of exposure to asbestos and other hazards, as well as health physics technicians, who help monitor workers' radiation exposure.

Last June, 12 workers inhaled radioactive gas and two also tested positive for skin contamination when they were working on the "tank farms," according to a report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an oversight panel established by Congress.
And Congress is taking a hard look at the Energy Department's plan to give health and safety authority back to the contractors
Some members of Congress have been urging the department to exert more authority over the site contractors. And the oversight panel set up by Congress does not want to see safety rules relaxed. It has taken issue with a plan by the Energy Department that would allow Hanford contractors and other sites to draw up their own plans for meeting safety rules.

John Conway, chairman of the oversight panel, said the panel objected to the agency's plan because it would mean that many rules and requirements would be softened, or considered merely guidance, without enforcement teeth.

Ms. Roberson, of the Energy Department, disagreed, saying the agency would still control safety standards. But Representative John D. Dingell, Democrat of Michigan and the ranking minority member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, complained in a recent letter to Secretary Abraham that "there has been very little evidence that D.O.E. contractors have made the interest of their workers a foremost concern."

Mr. Dingell added, "In the past, weapons production took priority over health and safety; currently, accelerated cleanup schedules and reduced cleanup budgets are taking priority."
One hopes that we have learned from the lessons of the past, that the thousands of sick and ill workers, and those that have already died, would serve as a lesson that unless there is strong government oversight, people will continue to get sick and die from preventable hazards.

But it's like those who say "unions may have been a good thing once upon a time...." but now we're so enlightened, etc., etc. We may have made progress over the past century in protecting workers' lives, protecting the environment, consumer safety, etc., but none of this progress has come without a fight, and none of it will last without constant vigilance. Some things may have changed over time, but human nature and the need to make a profit makes strong laws and enforcement as necessary today as they've ever been.