Stimulus Workers Confront Legacy of Contamination at Nuclear Sites (Single Page)
Chapter 1: Stimulus Jobs v. Beryllium Risks
The $2 billion in federal stimulus money came as blessedly as rain to the desert of southeastern Washington state, where the government has spent decades trying to clean up the most productive A-bomb factory of the Cold War era. Phones at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation rang off the hook with calls from people in the nearby metropolitan area of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland who hoped to land one of 4,000 new stimulus jobs -- on top of 11,000 already working at Hanford. Robert Valdez, 33, a father of two young children who was among the early hires, said the starting pay of $17 an hour plus benefits was "life changing." So were the nine weeks of intensive training he underwent to prepare for the hazards of working around a stew of poisonous chemicals and menacing pockets of radiation.
The money for Hanford, part of a $6 billion infusion at nuclear cleanup sites run by the Department of Energy, seems in perfect sync with goals of the stimulus plan -- the much-debated $800 billion package of tax cuts, payments and infrastructure spending that President Barack Obama and Congress approved last year to stanch the bleeding economy. But the twin ambitions of fast jobs and enduring environmental gains are colliding with another goal: worker safety. The crush of new hiring, ProPublica has found, is potentially exposing stimulus workers to beryllium dust, a legacy of the nuclear industry that can cause a debilitating and deadly disease in people who are sensitive to the metal. The risks don't seem to be registering with some workers. Valdez said he received extensive radiation training but spent only four hours on beryllium safety. He left with the impression that beryllium "is in a few buildings, but it's not something to worry about ... I don't think about beryllium on a daily basis."
An Insidious Threat, Hidden From View
But the dangers are real, and they've been compounded by gaps in the government's safety efforts against this elusive threat. Unlike radiation or chemicals, beryllium dust cannot be identified by sight or smell, or tested for in real time. Screening for chronic beryllium disease (CBD) is unreliable, and officials concede they don't know all the places beryllium is hiding at some of the 20 nuclear cleanup sites that received stimulus money, notably Hanford and the Savannah River site in South Carolina, which received $1.6 billion from the stimulus. Though rare, there is no cure for CBD. Cases continue to trickle in despite what the Energy Department and its contractors maintain are huge strides in preventing beryllium exposure.
A new CBD prevention program at the 586-square-mile Hanford site was to be in place Jan. 1. Yet there have been lapses and delays as stimulus hiring proceeds. Months after the deadline, workers say beryllium safety steps are not uniformly implemented. Current and former workers say safety officials downplay the dangers of beryllium and that new workers don't understand the gravity of the risk. One longtime worker said new employees routinely enter areas marked as potential beryllium zones without respirators. Some get no more beryllium training than a few multiple choice questions on a computer safety exam. "If you get an answer wrong," said one worker who has taken the training, "they just take you back and you start clicking through until you get it right." As with other workers who spoke confidentially to ProPublica, the employee requested anonymity to protect his job.
Lung Function Slowly Erodes
Data kept by AdvanceMed Hanford, the site medical contractor, show that of some 5,000 workers screened at Hanford in the last five years, 128 have either CBD or beryllium "sensitization," meaning they had an allergic-like reaction to beryllium and will likely develop the disease. In CBD, the immune system attacks beryllium in the lungs and forms scarred areas called granulomas. Patients gradually lose their ability to breathe. Five new cases of beryllium sensitization have been reported at Hanford since last summer.
Prompted largely by the concerns of sick former workers and a watchdog group, Heart of America Northwest, a fresh Energy Department inspection of beryllium protection measures at Hanford began in March. According to Craig Hall and Tom Peterson, former Hanford workers with CBD who attended briefings from the inspectors, workers have reported cases of troubling laxity. In one instance, a building door was propped open, obscuring a sign that warned of potential contamination. A group of new workers entered without protective gear, Hall and Peterson said, and emerged covered in dust that might have contained beryllium.
The inspection report is due out this month, but ProPublica obtained copies of letters the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security has already sent to three Hanford contractors citing actions that must be taken in the next 30 days. Among them: Ensure that workers are being properly trained and monitored for exposure, and cease the unsafe practice of declaring buildings uncontaminated before they've been exhaustively tested for beryllium.
When the government rolled out the stimulus last year, the emphasis was on speed. "These investments will put Americans to work while cleaning up contamination from the Cold War era," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in announcing where the cleanup money would go. "It reflects our commitment to future generations as well as to help local economies get moving again." But longtime Hanford watchdogs worry that streaming new workers onto the site without adequate safeguards in place is asking for trouble. "It's when they start rushing at Hanford that people get hurt," said Tom Carpenter, head of the nonprofit watchdog group Hanford Challenge and a lawyer for nuclear safety whistleblowers.
The Energy Department declined to answer questions about specific problems with beryllium safety and instead gave a general statement saying the agency provides training and "takes very seriously its commitment to protect the health and safety of employees." Prior to the inspection, several agency officials did discuss with ProPublica the challenges involved in protecting workers from beryllium at Hanford.
Mike Van Dyke, an industrial hygienist at National Jewish Health, considered the country's top respiratory disease hospital, said uncertainties about safe beryllium exposure levels and the difficulty of locating contaminated areas mean more CDB cases are likely. "The thing I would be concerned about," said Van Dyke, "is that you have a large number of workers who are going to be newly exposed to beryllium, and it appears that there is a sub-population of workers that are capable of getting beryllium disease at really low levels."
Chapter 2: Chronic Beryllium Disease and Hanford
DOE describes Hanford as the world's largest environmental remediation project. In addition to the remnants of nine plutonium reactors, Hanford holds 4.6 million pounds of irradiated uranium fuel rods and 53 million gallons of radioactive waste buried in underground tanks, some of which have leaked into the groundwater and are moving toward the Columbia River. Radiation has long been the dean of hazards at nuclear cleanup sites, but in April 2009, the Hanford Advisory Board, a group chartered by DOE that includes current and former Hanford workers, medical specialists, environmental and worker-safety advocates, and local government officials, wrote a letter advising the department that "from a worker safety perspective ... beryllium currently rates as a greater hazard than radiation." The letter included a disquieting calculation: Studies have found that between 2 percent and 6 percent of people exposed to beryllium will become sensitized or develop CBD. At the time of the letter, 115 of 4,583 tested Hanford workers were sensitized or had CBD. Assuming the monitored employees are representative of the work force, the numbers imply that between 42 percent and 100 percent of Hanford workers have been exposed to beryllium.
Keith Smith, a retired Hanford mechanic and now a member of the board, said that DOE representatives at Hanford "challenged the math at first, but after studying it a bit, they decided it was correct." Steve Bertness, a DOE industrial hygienist at Hanford who specializes in beryllium, argued that the calculation unfairly extrapolated from a sample of workers to the entire Hanford population.
Beryllium Exposure Limit
Medical experts say some people get chronic beryllium disease at exposure levels well below the federal safety limits used at nuclear cleanup sites. Dr. Lisa Maier, head of the occupational and environmental sciences division at National Jewish Health, in Denver, conducted research with colleagues in which chronic beryllium exposure at the eight-hour limit set by DOE -- 0.2 micrograms of beryllium dust per cubic meter of air: roughly a pencil tip in a box 80 feet tall and the size of a football field -- was not protective of many people. In fact, it was the median exposure for those who became sensitized or developed CBD. Maier said she stopped seeing the disease only at exposures of one-tenth of the federal limit or lower, but even that finding isn't necessarily reassuring. "Does that level protect 100 percent of people? We don't know," she said. "We're starting to find that some people are genetically at increased risk for beryllium sensitization and disease."
Beryllium has a deep history at Hanford, from its part in capping nuclear fuel rods prior to 1987, when the last reactor closed, to its former use in non-sparking tools, which still turn up at the site. DOE officials once hoped that examining historical beryllium records at Hanford would highlight all the areas of potential danger. But "some records are not as complete as others," said Bill McArthur, deputy director of the Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS). Air and surface testing programs have been unable to pinpoint some sources. "It would be nice if we could say, 'Yes, we know that there was a beryllium project back in the 1970s or 80s, and that's where our cases seem to be coming from,'" said Paul Wambach, an HSS industrial hygienist. "But we don't really have that at Hanford, so this leaves open that our exposure monitoring is missing something."
According to Hanford data submitted to HSS, employees who've been sensitized or have CBD include not only the trade workers tearing down old plutonium processing buildings but also administrative employees whose work is largely confined to desks -- a testament to the mobility of beryllium dust. In one CBD case documented in medical literature, a woman's only exposure to beryllium was thought to be via the clothes that her husband brought home from work. Beryllium dust appears to be the cockroach of safety hazards. Wipe samples have found it in areas far more varied than historical operations would suggest, including overhead cranes, circuit breakers and ventilation ducts.
Because beryllium dust travels so readily, declaring a facility clean based on records indicating the absence of prior beryllium work -- a practice the HSS inspectors were informed of and noted in their letters -- is potentially dangerous in the absence of rigorous new testing. And many buildings have not undergone such testing. Fluor Hanford, a prime contractor from 1996 until phasing out last year, declared buildings clean based on tests that a 2004 DOE report said "avoided selection of locations likeliest to have contamination."
Chapter 3: Apology to Beryllium Workers
At least radiation can be measured in real time with a Geiger counter, so workers can quickly steer clear of hot spots. Beryllium samples must be collected and sent to a lab, and only later do workers find out if they were at risk. In 2000, according to Hanford sampling data obtained by ProPublica, a toolbox used by Craig Hall, who was a Hanford electrician before he became too sick to work, was tested for beryllium dust. Four separate 100-square-centimeter areas of the toolbox were wiped and the contents analyzed. The results underscore the difficulty of locating beryllium: Three of the wipes turned up essentially nothing, but the fourth, from the top right tray of the box, contained beryllium dust far in excess of the federal safety limit.
As with most workers, the precise sources and extent of Hall's exposures remain unclear. Hall remembers that the toolbox was tested, but said he was never told the exact results until ProPublica presented them. "All they said was that the toolbox is all crapped up, and then they took it away," he recalled. By February 2007, Hall was too fatigued from CBD to work and was granted medical removal, which included two years' pay, lifetime coverage of all CBD-related medical expenses, and a lump sum of $150,000. But, said the 58-year-old Hall, "I've got chronic beryllium disease. It could be $500 million and it wouldn't mean shit."
Given that levels of beryllium dust can vary so greatly just inches apart in the same toolbox, it has proved extremely difficult to find dust weighed in thousandths of milligrams on a work site with half the land mass of Rhode Island. For decades, as the dust was spread around Hanford, the government wasn't even trying to keep up. Beryllium, prized for being lighter than aluminum yet stronger than steel, was simply too useful.
Declassified Documents Show Risk
Declassified Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) documents from the 1940s show an unequivocal awareness of the toxicity of low doses of beryllium -- and an intense desire to keep the issue under wraps. A 1947 commission report warns of "public indignation" should stories of sick workers hit the media. "This might seriously embarrass the AEC," the report reads. A declassified 1953 report by a Hanford industrial hygienist raised alarm about cases in which people who lived within a mile of a Massachusetts beryllium plant got CBD. "The exposures [that led to disease] have been low," the report warned. But it took four decades before the federal government moved to protect workers.
In 2000, with undeniable cases of CBD cropping up at nuclear facilities, the government enacted a beryllium safety regulation. Known to workers simply as "the beryllium rule," it set an "action level" of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged over an eight-hour day, above which exposure must be reduced. The beryllium rule went into effect months after the Toledo Blade conferred upon the government the embarrassment the AEC had dreaded in 1947. The Blade revealed that, for decades, the DOE had partnered with Cleveland-based Brush Wellman Corp., the chief supplier of beryllium to the government, to quash concern about beryllium disease and to oppose efforts by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to strengthen exposure standards. OSHA adopted the exposure limit of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air in 1970, and still uses that standard today, even though it was long ago proven unsafe. Some of OSHA's own inspectors have become sensitized to beryllium.
In April 2000, then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson apologized on national TV for a half-century of government misbehavior toward beryllium risks: "Priority one was production of our nuclear weapons," Richardson said. "[The] last priority was the safety and health of the workers that build these weapons." That statement could easily have been extended to those who began cleaning up after those weapons. Former Hanford workers like Tom Peterson, 57, an ironworker who has CBD, recall being teased by safety managers as "beryllium brats" if they slowed down work to request respirators before entering areas of potential contamination. Peterson, once a hunter and long-distance runner, is now down to 33 percent of the lung capacity expected of a man his size and age. He is connected to a portable oxygen-pumping machine 24-hours a day. His wife, Janet, who quit her job as a legal assistant to care for him full time, can only watch as he wastes away. "It's a death sentence for me," Peterson said.
Last year, a coalition of workers and DOE representatives hashed out a new, improved "chronic beryllium disease prevention program" covering all Hanford contractors and subcontractors. A goal was to standardize safety efforts across the site and mark not only buildings with a known beryllium hazard but those that haven't been cleared based on extensive testing. Workers said the plan is a huge step forward. And yet, Hanford employees involved in implementing the program said that, months after the planned Jan. 1 start date, provisions aren't uniformly in place. "Some buildings are being reassigned [as potentially contaminated] and some are not," according to one employee, who said he has seen new workers enter areas marked for potential beryllium contamination without protection.
DOE Lacks 'Sense of Urgency'
A February letter from the Hanford Advisory Board to DOE raised concern about delays "given the serious nature of the potential risk to workers." The letter also noted safety steps that DOE is not taking. "The simple questioning of sensitized employees on their work history to determine potential undiscovered sources of beryllium is still not happening," the letter reads. Hanford's beryllium program, the board wrote, "seems to lack a sense of urgency."
Washington Closure Hanford, one of the major site contractors and a company owned jointly by CH2M Hill, Bechtel National and URS Corp., was granted an extension by DOE and now has until Sept. 21 to fully implement the new beryllium program.
Current, longtime Hanford workers said lax attitudes toward CBD result in part from the unpredictable course of the disease. Because CBD can appear quickly following exposure, or take years or even decades to manifest, no one can say for certain when or how often an ill individual was exposed. Some Energy Department officials at Hanford suggest beryllium contamination is largely a thing of the past. "It's possible that [sick workers] got their exposure before we had a better understanding of beryllium like we do now," said Bertness, the DOE industrial hygienist. He suggested some workers with CBD might not have been exposed at Hanford. "It can also happen from naturally occurring beryllium [in soil]," he said, "so these people could be gardeners at home." However, beryllium researchers agree that naturally occurring beryllium — beryllium silicate — is not as dangerous as the industrial version — beryllium oxide. In one study, miners did not become sensitized despite extensive exposure to natural beryllium. Several medical experts told ProPublica that naturally occurring beryllium does not cause CBD.
Test Results Unreliable
Workers who operate in known contamination areas are screened at least annually with a beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test, or BeLPT. In the test, a worker gives blood that is then exposed to beryllium. If the white blood cells react strongly enough, the worker is deemed sensitized and at risk of CBD. Those who test negative are free to work beryllium jobs. But the test provides little solace: It has a false negative rate of about 32 percent, according to a 2004 paper in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, and a false positive rate of about 1 percent, meaning workers are far more likely to be improperly cleared than improperly restricted. Some workers test "borderline" – unclear whether they are negative or positive. One Hanford worker who was recently tested said some employees who tested borderline have been cleared to work in potential beryllium areas without additional testing to verify their status.
Chapter 4: Beryllium Whistleblowers at Hanford
By most accounts, the DOE has made an about-face since the days of sweeping beryllium dust under the rug. "In their defense," said Van Dyke, the National Jewish industrial hygienist, "they're leading the world on beryllium. They've got more beryllium than anywhere else, and they have more experience on working on these sites." Nonetheless, the inspectors who showed up in March are hearing from workers about numerous problems. Beyond clearing buildings without new and rigorous sampling, inspectors were told that workers in street clothes, not protective work gear, have been allowed to come and go from potentially contaminated facilities, raising the possibility that the workers brought contamination out with them and tracked it across the site.
DOE officials confirmed that workers have expressed such concerns. "We've heard those," said one agency official who declined to be named because the inspection wasn't complete. "Now we have to go out and validate the information and implementation of the [prevention] program."
One reason that many workers requested anonymity when speaking with ProPublica is that some former workers at Hanford claim they've paid a price for criticizing beryllium safety. A 2004 investigation report by the Washington State Department of Health includes complaints made by a frustrated doctor that she was discouraged from writing work restrictions for sensitized workers that would keep them away from beryllium contaminated areas.
Separately, Dr. Loren Lewis, site medical director from January 2004 until he was fired in October 2006, filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor against the Energy Department and his employer, Computer Sciences Corp., which runs AdvanceMed Hanford. Lewis's complaint was dismissed by an administrative law judge because he filed it too late, but documents he gave to ProPublica include e-mails in which Lewis is asked by supervisors, as part of a plan to implement beryllium protections, to establish a "safe level" of beryllium exposure for workers who are sensitized or have CBD. The e-mails show that Lewis consulted with beryllium disease experts and concluded there was no known safe level.
To his bosses' dismay, Lewis repeatedly recommended "no exposure to beryllium" for workers who were sensitized or had CBD. In one e-mail three weeks before he was fired, one of Lewis's bosses at AdvanceMed Hanford wrote to Lewis that his insistence on no exposure, as opposed to setting a safe level, "is a show stopper" for approval of the beryllium protection plan. "They were trying to appease DOE," Lewis said of his superiors, "and what they were recommending was not safe." Lewis' wording was ultimately accepted by his bosses; records show he was fired for what superiors described as a lack of cooperation during formulation of the beryllium safety plan.
In e-mails to Lewis and another doctor in 2006, an AdvanceMed Hanford employee confided that managers for CH2M Hill told beryllium-sensitized workers that their protective work restrictions wouldn't be honored. "The employee from yesterday came in today and had his work restriction removed," reads one such e-mail. "Someone needs to advised [sic] DOE that CH2M is not accommodating the new beryllium work restriction."
Just last month, in the midst of the DOE inspection, Mary Sams, the head nurse in the beryllium disease monitoring program at AdvanceMed Hanford, was terminated for what several Hanford employees familiar with the situation say was an attempt to document requests by CH2M Hill's Hanford arm to remove a work restriction for an individual who may have beryllium disease. Computer Sciences Corp. told ProPublica that it would not comment on any personnel matters, and CH2M Hill did not return multiple requests for comment on beryllium safety issues. Sams declined to comment on the cause of her termination.
'Told to Keep My Mouth Shut'
Ann Immele, who worked at Hanford for 13 years, including eight as an executive secretary for labor relations for Fluor Hanford, said she was "flat out told to keep my mouth shut" about the risks of beryllium exposure. Immele said she used to update a risk-assessment form so that it included beryllium. The assessment, according to AdvanceMed Hanford's website, "is to inform AMH of identified hazards, physical job demands, and anticipated exposure levels so proper medical tests can be done during physical exams." Immele said an industrial hygienist who works at Hanford told her she "didn't have a clue about beryllium." Against the hygienist's urging, she said she told some workers they needed to be tested for beryllium sensitization and disease. Some workers were not tested, she said, because their bosses signed off on the assessment forms and wrote "not available" on the line for the worker's signature. "I saw too many things," said Immele. "That's why I left."
Immele has a personal reason to be concerned: Her husband, Bob, a former electrician at Hanford, has CBD and needs a machine to push air through his lungs when he sleeps. Until the last few months, when he became too sick to work, Bob Immele taught beryllium safety for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), which operates facilities on and adjacent to Hanford but is under the jurisdiction of a different DOE office from the rest of the site. The lab did not participate in crafting the new Hanford CBD prevention program, partly because it already takes extra measures to ensure worker safety. Immele, for example, was able to go into the PNNL computer system whenever sampling is done to immediately update a map so workers can see beryllium hot spots as soon as they are located. "I'm not sure why all the (Hanford) contractors don't use it, or something like it," he said. Among the action items in the April 16 letters from inspectors to DOE contractors is one to "Activate the Hanford beryllium website with up-to-date information."
Asked about the surge of stimulus workers, Bob Immele frowned. He noted that the PNNL contractors allow people who are sick with CBD to train new workers; the rest of Hanford no longer does. "Most of these people are being told, ‘You have a job for two or three years.' They're going to do it, and maybe years later they'll find out they were exposed," Immele said. "They listen when I say, ‘You don't want to end up like me.' And I don't want to see a situation where we'll have to apologize to them all over again."