Monday, June 07, 2004

DOE Investigation of Hanford Coverup: Exoneration or Whitewash?

You may recall a report last February in the Washington Post detailing a worker safety scandal at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.

The Post, working with the Government Accountability Project reported that bonuses were given to the contractor (C2HM HIll) to empty nuclear and chemical waste tanks faster, nuclear cleanup contractors were given incentives to minimize the number of workdays lost to employee injuries, an employee medical center director instructed clerks to alter patient records to show that workers' injuries were not related to work, environmental monitoring was conducted after toxic gasses had dispersed, and workers were harrassed and fired for requesting protective respirators and complaining about safety conditions.

As a result of the allegations, the feds investigated. The results were released last week.
A Hanford contractor was sharply criticized yesterday by federal investigators for failing to protect workers from toxic and radioactive chemicals at the nuclear-waste cleanup site, concluding that aging underground tanks are at risk of collapsing and aren't being properly monitored.

A separate Energy Department investigation, however, found no evidence of criminal misconduct by contractors accused of trying to cover up worker illnesses and injuries.

Investigators looking into the tank cleanup cited dangerous practices by contractor CH2M Hill that "could seriously damage" some of the 177 massive tanks holding highly radioactive waste.

"It's not just worker health and safety," said Tom Carpenter, a Seattle attorney with the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group. "It's all of our health and safety."

Most of the tanks are years past their design life, but hold radioactive material measured at about 200 million curies -- roughly four times the level released in the Chernobyl reactor meltdown.

Some of the tanks are maintained under vacuum conditions to prevent dangerous vapors from escaping, but investigators discovered that in most cases there were no pressure-relief valves.

The 89-page report agreed on many points with a recent state study that concluded that not enough is known about the lethal mix of waste in the tanks to adequately shield workers. It also found that monitoring of gases released from the tanks was insufficient, the analysis of potential threats to workers was inadequate and the federal government was not providing enough oversight of CH2M Hill.
No sooner had the report concerning the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation (HEHF)(the health clinic that was accused of altering patient records to show that workers' injuries were not related to work) been released than I received an e-mail from Steve Hessl of the HEHF:
I hope that "Spewing Forth" [sic] will have the journalistic integrity to retract its former, extremely negative statements regarding the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation. The real story is that the investigation was politically motivated in order to enhance the ability of a for-profit company to take over care of the Hanford Site Workers. HEHF is a non-profit health care program that had been providing excellent care to the Hanford Workers for 38 years and now is displaced by a well-connected for-profit corporation with deep pockets.
Well, first, in these days of Fox News and Judith Miller at the New York Times, the term "journalistic integrity" sounds a bit quaintly antiquated. Anyway, I'm not a journalist, I'm an unpaid blogger with nothing to lose but my integrity. So in the spirit of Blogger Integrity, Mr. Hessl, I certainly will report that, as mentioned above, the DOE Inspector General
found no evidence of criminal conduct at Hanford. The inspector general said he could not substantiate workers' accusations about contractors' tampering with medical records and hiding information about dangerous vapors from nuclear waste tanks.
Of course, integrity (journalistic or otherwise) also compels me to report GAP's response to the DOE I.G. report regarding the exoneration of HEHF. Calling the DOE report a "whitewash,"
Tom Carpenter, an attorney with GAP’s Nuclear Oversight Campaign, stated, “The Inspector General has done a poor job of executing its mission as watchdog for the public. GAP has collected the sworn statements and documentary evidence from many workers, but the OIG has apparently ignored much of this information, and therefore failed to meet minimum investigative standards."

GAP observed the following about the OIG report:

• The OIG took no sworn statements from any of the witnesses identified to them by GAP.

• The OIG failed to follow-up on eye-witness evidence provided to them of the falsification of calibration records for lab equipment at HEHF.

• The OIG did not interview two engineers from the tank farms even though GAP identified that their evidence dealt precisely with falsified and inaccurate environmental records and inaccurate information regarding constituent products contained within the headspace of the tanks in the Tank Farms.

• The OIG did not seek to interview a worker who suffered a broken leg at work that was not reported as a job injury, after GAP provided the information to the OIG along with the name and phone number of the worker.
GAP also had some problems with the timing of the release of the reports. A GAP spokesperson expressed concern about the timing of the release of the two reports.
The more positive inspector general's report was released early Wednesday and Abraham's public comments focus on its findings of "no criminal wrongdoing." The much more critical report, which was completed in April but not released until Wednesday, was posted on the department's Web site late in the day.

"The fact that the department is playing games with the release of these reports makes me worry that there is no commitment at the secretary's level for reforming health and safety at Hanford," said Tom Carpenter, director of GAP's Nuclear Oversight Campaign.
In addition, despite the DOE report, the Washington State attorney general's office is still investigating the adequacy of medical care at the site.