HANFORD, Wash. (Circa) — Workers at what is considered America's most contaminated nuclear waste dump are celebrating a victory after a settlement with the government agency that oversees a decades-long clean-up effort at the site. The Hanford site was a federal nuclear production facility back in the 1940s. But the lengthy effort to clean up tens of millions of gallons of toxic waste that was left behind, has sickened many workers who have been exposed to harmful chemicals according to numerous published reports. A settlement reached Wednesday with the Department of Energy addresses and potentially resolves issues that have led to illnesses.
"For once, the workers are being heard," Bertolla Garza, the wife of a longtime Hanford worker, said during a press conference staged by Attorney General Bob Ferguson in Washington state. The agency, along with workers and an advocacy group called Hanford Challenge, sued the DOE back in 2015 for failing its in efforts to effectively protect Hanford workers. Ferguson told the crowd, "There is no way to sugar coat this. They didn’t take this seriously."
What the group considered major failures resulted in hundreds, potentially thousands, of people working getting sick according to Hanford Challenge. Abe Garza, who worked at Hanford dating back to 1983, was among those in attendance for the announcement. You could barely hear his voice after years of damage. "It’s changed my life," he explained.
Circa shared the story of the former Hanford instrument tech back in 2017. He's had various medical problems through the years since he started working at the site back in 1983. Garza has been diagnosed with asthma, COPD and other serious problems as a result of his job at Hanford's tank farms. Those tanks are the result of plutonium production that was part of the Manhattan Project. The work left behind 50 million gallons of toxic waste in 177 underground tanks. Vapors that can escape from those tanks can be inhaled by workers at the site.
Last year, Circa discovered numerous reports that found the feds were not only aware of the toxic leaks but also took few steps to stop them. With this new settlement, the DOE must install technology to detect and monitor vapors at the site, and publicly warn workers. These are considered formal obligations for the government.
"They’re moving ahead with a system, that if successful, will capture and destroy toxic vapors that escape the nuclear waste tanks and pose such a significant danger to workers who clean up the site," Ferguson said.
For those who have already endured years of illness, the settlement feels like a major victory. "Hearing and documenting dozens of stories of sick workers was heartbreaking," Hanford Challenge attorney Meredith Crafton said. "And this was constant motivation to fight this lawsuit."
The Attorney General's office says it will be monitoring the DOE's actions to make sure the terms of the settlement are implemented. If not, Ferguson said his agency reserves the right to return to court.
"This is their last best shot."