Washington attorney general Bob Ferguson on Wednesday announced a settlement agreement between the U.S. Department of Energy and the state and organizations over a lawsuit alleging that leaking tanks are endangering Hanford nuclear site workers.
Under the settlement agreement, the U.S. Department of Energy will pay the state and Hanford Challenge, a watchdog organization investigating the nuclear site cleanup, $925,000 and begin testing new technology aimed to eliminate tank vapors. The federal government is also required to monitor vapor exposures on the site. In exchange, Ferguson suspended the state's case.
“Under this agreement, the cycle of exposure and illness due to unprotected chemical vapor exposures is finally being addressed and hopefully resolved," said Tom Carpenter, Hanford Challenge executive director.
The lawsuit, filed in September 2015 against the U.S. Department of Energy and contractor Washington River Protection Solutions, alleged that gases emitted from underground waste tanks are posing a serious risk to workers on site. The complaint followed a 2014 DOE study that concluded the gases were "inconsistent with the provisions of a safe and healthful workplace free from recognized hazards."
The 586-square-mile Hanford site, located near Richland in Eastern Washington, produced the plutonium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program in World War II; that same plutonium was believed to be used for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
Hanford has since become one of the largest cleanup sites in the country as the federal government since 1989 has worked to remove 56 million gallons of nuclear waste in 177 tanks underground.
The DOE now has three years to test a system meant to destroy tank vapors; if the testing is successful, the agency must implement the system at Hanford.
Hanford Challenge and UA Local 598 together filed a similar lawsuit that was later combined with the state's. The majority of the restitution money will go to the state, while Hanford Challenge and UA Local 598 will share the remaining 45 percent, according to the attorney general's office.
“This is a major victory for the brave men and women working to clean up the Hanford nuclear reservation,” Ferguson said in a statement Wednesday.