Circa Investigates: "Wasted Breath: Silence and Sickness at America's Largest Toxic Waste Dump"
In the desert of rural Washington state sits a site considered the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States. The Hanford site was crucial in World War II, developing the plutonium that was eventually dropped on Nagasaki in Japan. But 70 years later, workers at the site have a new mission: clean up the millions of gallons of chemical waste left behind.
It's an effort that could take until 2040. But delays and complications aside, the clean-up is being marred by claims from workers who say the job is making them sick.
Seth Ellingsworth, a former radiological control technician at Hanford, is among the most vocal workers who say their health was seriously impacted. He can no longer work following an incident where he says he breathed in something that damaged his lungs. Ellingsworth says what happened, effectively ruined his life.
"Every day I struggle to breathe," Ellingsworth said. "Every day I wake up I have to use my breathing machine. I have to be careful everywhere I go. I can’t do things with my kids."
Seth is not alone. Court records claim that in just a two-month period in 2016, more than 50 workers were exposed to toxic vapors. We talked to several families impacted by illnesses after working at Hanford.
Circa discovered more than a billion dollars has already been paid out in compensation and medical bills to people who were harmed at Hanford. It's taxpayer money that comes straight from the U.S. Treasury. And it's being handed over as the feds ignore warnings about problems at the site that have been pointed out by experts in government reports for years.
An advocacy group, Hanford Challenge, has also been pointing out safety issues at Hanford for decades.
The government doesn't really want it to be in the headlines. I think they're pretty successful at quieting things down.
Many workers believe they were sickened by something that experts have warned about for years: spontaneous vapor exposures. Basically these individuals believe they breathed in a random cloud of potentially dangerous chemicals.
That type of exposure is something mentioned repeatedly in government reports as a likely cause of health effects, with one 2014 report called the TVAT saying, "Those adverse health effects are likely caused by acute, transitory exposures to relatively high concentrations of chemicals."
LOOK: The Hanford site in pictures
That TVAT (Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report) report from 2014 listed 47 observations for the site. Among them:
- The technicians in charge of measuring chemicals after a potential exposure may not be fully qualified
- The list of chemicals to test for is incomplete, so understanding what workers may have been exposed to is difficult
- Hanford's evaluation of workplace safety is based on a method that doesn't apply to spontaneous vapor exposures
That report and others that have followed also point to a complaint that dates back years. It involves the timeliness of technicians when it comes to testing for chemicals following a reported exposure. The TVAT says it could take hours for technicians to show up and actually measure what's in the air.
Tom Carpenter with Hanford Challenge says generally the testing being done at Hanford related to exposures, is lacking and pales in comparison to the effort to explain away the problems.
They should know everything about these chemicals. There shouldn't be any question about what it'll do to us.
Government reports and experts have drawn a link between random vapor exposures and the kind of health effects the people Circa spoke with have experienced. But that doesn't mean it's Easy Street for workers applying for workers compensation.
Another family we met with, the Garza's, had boxes filled with medical records detailing their effort to get injury claims paid. Abe Garza spent more than 30 years at Hanford. And he's spent more than a year dealing with his medical claim after he says he developed health problems after breathing in a spontaneous vapor cloud.
Workers like Seth Ellingsworth and Abe Garza have a champion in a woman named Faye Vlieger. She represents Hanford workers whose claims are stuck in limbo. A former Hanford worker herself, Vlieger's living room is stacked with bins filled with clients' records.
"I was determined to fight the U.S. Department of Energy, that’s who I was fighting," Vlieger said. " I wasn't going to let my government behave this way, and just walk away because what they’re doing is wrong and it is grievous. And they're doing it to people who are least able to fight back."
Qualifying for compensation can be an uphill battle, even with Faye Vlieger's help. According to the Department of Labor, since 2001, nearly 29,000 claims have been submitted to a federal program for injured workers. Almost 60% of them didn't get paid.
Still, despite the hurdles, the federal government has shelled out more than $1.3 BILLION in medical bills and compensation related solely to Hanford. But the contractors involved don't pay. Instead, American taxpayers foot the bill.
Tom Carpenter and Hanford Challenge question whether contractors are motivated to focus on safety if they don't pay the price when workers get hurt. He blames the DOE for that, saying, "They don't do anything because it’s the right thing to do, they do it because they have to and to satisfy the people who are giving them a hard time. Do it for the right reasons. That starts with acknowledgement and they have yet to acknowledge even that there’s a harm associated with these vapors, much less that anyone has been harmed."
WATCH: Hanford in videos from the federal government
So what have the DOE and Hanford done? We asked the Department of Energy to talk about its efforts to protect workers on many occasions - offering to do interviews in both Washington state and in Washington, DC. We also sent specific questions many times, but they went unanswered.
We know there's never been a public health study looking at all the Hanford workers who got sick. But the DOE says it has taken a number of steps to strengthen worker safety and predict for potential vapor exposures.
In a recent court case from 2016 involving the DOE and Hanford Challenge, the judge said "The Defendants continue to deploy significant protective measures to protect Hanford employees in conjunction with the TVAT report recommendations."
The facility also began requiring supplied air to workers. In March, workers were also given access to air-purifying respirators. In a statement to Circa, the DOE said it plans to implement new monitoring and detection equipment.
Seth Ellingsworth has found a way to breathe new life into his routine. He started a website. It’s an effort to kill some of his idle time while he’s out of work. He's profiling workers who've gotten sick. Their stories, are his story.
I thought I was working a job where the people cared about us. And I believed it. Looking back that was a really dumb thing to do.