The following is excerpted and adapted from Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America (Haymarket Books, 2022).
If you thought breathing in microscopic drops of COVID-19 was bad for your lungs, try inhaling a little of the vapor emanating from the exhaust pipes of Hanford’s burping waste tanks. For years, workers at Hanford—which turned out unfathomable amounts of plutonium for the US’s atomic weaponry, and is now home to the most expensive environmental clean-up ever—received mixed messages about whether or not they should wear respirators while working in areas that could potentially expose them to noxious, even radioactive fumes.
In July 2021, Washington State released a survey of 1,600 Hanford workers, past and present, of which 57 percent admitted they had experienced a dangerous exposure event at some point while on the job, and 32 percent stated they had long-term exposure to noxious vapors.
Abe Garza, who worked as an instrument technician for over thirty years, is one of Hanford’s many worker victims. Over the years, hundreds of Hanford contractors have breathed in these foul invisible fumes. Garza can’t even count how many times he inhaled toxic gases during his tenure at the nuclear site, but it was enough to cause him lifelong problems: headaches, nosebleeds, and the inability to smell the onions his wife chops up. At times, he even passes out from an uncontrollable cough. More significantly, Garza has brain damage, and his lungs are permanently scarred, which makes it hard to breathe, hence the perpetual cough. Such is the price for working around Hanford’s tank farm for three decades, but does it have to be?
On August 15, 2014, Garza was rushed to the ER. He could hardly take a breath; his chest felt as if it was collapsing. The day before he had been exposed to vapors while on duty at Hanford’s tank farms. He wheezed on his drive home from work, his head was killing, his nose kept gushing blood, and he had a persistent, odd metallic taste in his mouth. He was sick and quickly getting worse. It turned out to be his last day at Hanford.
Hanford officials dismissed the idea that Garza was hurt on the job, and his managers dismissed the idea that he or others inhaled anything that could have caused a minor headache, let alone a serious health problem. In the spring of 2016, two years after Garza’s final day at Hanford, fifty-one workers reported falling ill, claiming they too had inhaled dangerous vapors. Washington River Protection Solution (WRPS), the Hanford contractor in charge of the site’s tank waste, downplayed any potential health hazard risks. Then, nine sick workers left the job site, complaining they’d too been exposed to vapors. WRPS was forced to respond; its public statement claimed that internal tests showed that the workers couldn’t possibly have gotten sick on the job from inhaling vapors. “Air samples taken yesterday in two areas where odors were reported indicated chemical concentrations well below regulatory standards,” said WRPS spokesperson Rob Roxburgh.
This sort of tepid, dismissive response by WRPS wasn’t new. They were conducting tests, after all. It was the same bullshit Hanford officials spouted for years. Management at Hanford consistently downplayed the threat of chemical exposure. It appeared to be a crucial aspect of their job. Respirators weren’t always mandatory and safety precautions were often flouted on the job site. Garza and others confirm that nowhere in their work-safety manuals, or hours of training videos, had they come across anything about the threat of chemical vapor exposure.
“I’ve never heard anybody say anything about that,” recalled Garza. “When they tell you what’s safe you would think that that’s [the truth].”
A June 2016 investigation by Seattle’s KING-5 news revealed that Hanford officials were absolutely lying about their own internal sampling of the tank vapor emissions. On numerous occasions, readings were well above safe levels, but these startling numbers were never released to the public or even passed along to the unwitting Hanford employees. According to the KING-5 investigation:
Dozens of readings over the years show measurements far above acceptable levels. Some examples include mercury, which can cause brain damage, measured in 2009 at 473 percent above occupational limits. Also in 2009, furan, a carcinogen, measured at 3145 percent above occupational limits. Ammonia, which can cause glaucoma and lung damage, was measured at more than 1800 percent above the limit. A known cancer-causing chemical called nitrosodimethylamine was recorded at 13,000 percent above the legal limits in 2005.
And on October 21, 2015, in what is known as the C-Farm of underground tanks, routine sampling found emissions “above (the) action level,” which prompted managers to “access restrictions” they deemed as necessary “to prevent worker exposure to an uncharacterized chemical hazard.”
The scheme was deceptive and deliberate. That was Garza’s takeaway, at least. At the time he was employed at Hanford, health and safety measures like wearing personal protective equipment were up to the employee. Without proper risk assessments, however, how could workers make that judgment?
“I’m most mad about Hanford lying to the employees that it is not dangerous out there. And that they are safe. That’s what I am most mad about,” said Garza’s wife, Bertolla Bugarin, who wasn’t shy about expressing her anger. “It’s a lie. It’s impossible for that to be. It’s scientifically impossible to have normal levels all the time. You’re in the most toxic site in the United States. It’s almost an insult to anybody with [any] intelligence.”
While over 1,800 chemicals are known to exist at Hanford, a handful are proven to be the most destructive: dimethylmercury, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, and n-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), along with several others. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 2004 that dimethylmercury was discovered on the grounds at Hanford. Perhaps the most toxic chemical emanating from the underground tanks, dimethylmercury can enter the human body through ingestion, inhalation, or even a splash to the skin. So why had it taken so long to discover that the chemical was floating around Hanford?
There is a simple answer: contractors and the government had never thought to test for it, or worse, didn’t care to until it was discovered at another DOE site. Down in South Carolina, dimethylmercury was found to be present in the waters of the Savannah River, leaking from a nearby DOE-operated nuclear site. CH2M Hill Hanford, a full-service engineering and construction company, took note and decided to conduct their own tests to see if the same toxin was leaking out of Hanford. What they found was startling.
“Approximately seven C-Farm tanks have indications of headspace or breather filter data in excess of the mercury vapor TLV’s (Threshold Limit Values) If all this mercury was present as dimethylmercury (unlikely, but conservative): a total of nine C-farm tanks would exceed the dimethylmercury vapor TLVs,” wrote Jim Honeyman of CH2M Hill.
The testing group sampled twelve tanks at the site’s C-Farm. In all, fourteen samples were taken from inside the tanks and around their aboveground filters, and dimethylmercury was detected. No doubt, had they tested for dimethylmercury years prior, they would have discovered it was present. It had been there for a long time.
“This chemical is so rare and unusual, we’re concerned they found any, and it was found at a time when no work was being done in the tank farm,” insisted Tom Carpenter, who at the time was director of the Government Accountability Project’s nuclear oversight campaign. “This is lethal at very low levels.”
That left Carpenter and others to wonder how many workers had been exposed over the years without their awareness. But while Carpenter was alarmed, the contractors at Hanford weren’t the least bit interested in investigating the problem further. When CH2M Hill handed over its contract to WRPS in 2008, dimethylmercury was not on the list of chemicals that required consistent tracking and the DOE didn’t force the issue. Consequently, dimethylmercury was not further monitored as a potential hazard to human health. From a work safety and public health perspective, it was a deeply dangerous omission.
On a warm August day in 1996, professor Karen Wetterhahn at Dartmouth College was in her Hanover, New Hampshire lab conducting tests when a few tiny drops of dimethylmercury fell onto her gloved hand. She immediately followed protocol, removed her gloves, and flushed her hands in a nearby sink. But it was too late. She was poisoned. Over the following months, Wetterhahn experienced excruciating symptoms: severe weight loss, immobilizing abdominal pain, and neurological decay. She was quickly deteriorating. Soon, Wetterhahn ended up in a vegetative state.
In June of 1997, ten months after the initial accident at the lab, her unconscious body was taken off life support. Her death sent shock waves through the chemistry community as well as regulatory agencies in Washington, DC. The death of Karen Wetterhahn, who was extremely well-regarded in her field, wasn’t a freak accident. She had taken all the proper precautions and still did not survive. The case was well-documented. Therefore, the detection of dimethylmercury at Hanford ought to have caused a complete re-evaluation of safety measures on the site. At the very least, the toxic substance should never have been taken off the list of routinely monitored chemicals.
“Dimethylmercury is probably one of the most insidious, most dangerous compounds that could be in the breathing environment anywhere,” said Dr. Marco Kaltofen, a nuclear research engineer and a Hanford expert. “Any responsible employer is going to be looking for dimethylmercury if they have a suspicion it might be present. We have more than a suspicion. We’ve got years of test data that show that it’s in the tanks; that it’s in the air.”
Clearly, WRPS had not been a responsible employer and the DOE failed to provide adequate oversight. When Seattle’s KING-5 News first investigated Hanford management’s negligence, WRPS failed to respond. Now, at last, WRPS is now required to monitor dimethylmercury: in 2015, they found that the chemical vapor exceeded state “permit limits.” Surprisingly, WRPS wasn’t keeping track of dimethylmercury in order to protect workers. They were obligated to do so by Washington State’s Clean Air Act.
For nearly twenty years, Lawrence Rouse went to work religiously, believing his small efforts were making a difference. He dutifully signed up for the most dangerous jobs at Hanford’s tank farm and the Plutonium Finishing Plant, where he was consistently exposed to chemicals and, on at least ten occasions, radiation as well. After two decades of this pernicious exposure, it finally caught up with him. Rouse now lives with a degenerative form of dementia. His last day at work was in 2012.
“The disease that I have, toxic encephalopathy, I think that’s how it’s pronounced, from the time you’re diagnosed you normally, it depends on every person, you normally have ten to twelve years and you’re dead. You just end up, it eats your brain away,” said Rouse.
Rouse’s menacing disease has impacted not only the activities in his day-to-day life but also the routines of those around him. After reading a poem his son had posted on social media about his father’s dementia, Rouse became emotional, telling the local NBC affiliate in Pasco, Washington, “[My son] wrote this letter, this little poem, and said that his dad is gone. He’s not the same dad that he had growing up. It’s hard for me to see that because that’s not me.”
His wife Melinda added, “I think the hardest part for me is knowing what he was and seeing what we’ve lost. Hard on the kids, hard on me.”
According to Rouse, he and his coworkers would often not wear the proper protective gear. “Anytime you went into a [tank] farm to do any kind of work you’d smell something. Sometimes it would be a little one. Sometimes it would almost bring you to your knees…it would rain the chemical on you from the stack. That’s why we wore the baseball caps.”
This is a common theme that runs through the safety culture, or lack thereof, at Hanford: workers time and again attest to the fact that for decades, improper gear, lack of testing, management neglect, and outright malfeasance were manifest. The result was a dangerous, and deadly, work environment.
In March 2017, Lawrence Rouse went before a Washington State Senate committee with his wife Melinda by his side. She was there to serve as his interpreter and a firsthand witness to his suffering. They were to speak in favor of legislation that would ultimately give support to workers like Rouse who had been harmed by chemical and radiation exposure at Hanford.
“He doesn’t speak well,” Melinda admitted to the panel. “I pretty much speak for him all the time now.”
Melinda was furious that nobody was holding the DOE responsible, aside from a few persistent citizen groups. She passionately implored the state to do its job and hold the DOE accountable for the numerous safety violations at Hanford. She was fed up. For years, Melinda and her husband fought the agency to grant proper compensation to their family for Rouse’s lost wages and the toll of ongoing medical treatment.
“Somebody has got to have the integrity to stop the self-governing Department of Energy,” declared Melinda, speaking in support of Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries’ initiative that would help workers who were sickened during their work at Hanford. By forcing the state to recognize that individual ailments were caused by conditions at the workplace, it would be far easier for employees, past and present, to receive compensation.
Joining Melinda to speak on behalf of her husband was Abe Garza’s wife, Bertolla Bugarin. Despite ample evidence that her husband had also fallen ill after exposure to chemical vapors, the state and DOE wrote it off as mere allergies and a bit of asthma. “It is the most toxic site in the United States,” said an exasperated Bertolla. “I’m really angry no one is listening to us.”
“To see a person who loves to learn and make his brain work get reduced to this, it’s heartbreaking,” Bertolla said of her husband. “It’s totally heartbreaking to see a person’s brain get wasted like that.”
Not only had nobody been listening to Melinda and Bertolla, some actively dismissed their cries for help. First up was attorney Natalee Fillinger, speaking on behalf of the Washington Self-Insurers Association, a trade group representing insurers who would be potentially liable for the workers’ claims.
It will be “extraordinarily expensive,” Fillinger insisted. “Before you make sweeping law changes, go find the actual internal reports that have been thoroughly reviewed and investigated issues.” Fillinger was arguing that greedy workers like Garza and Rouse would take advantage of these changes in worker compensation rules. Bob Battles, of the Association of Washington Business, concurred, complaining that it would set a “bad precedent,” forcing employers to make hefty payouts to sick workers even if they didn’t acquire their afflictions on the job.
Despite hefty pushback from industry, a similar bill was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee in March of 2018. While the initial legislation had failed in the Washington State Senate, this nearly identical bill was later passed after a very serious accident at Hanford. It was a bill that was long overdue.