Wasted Breath  Silence and Sickness at America’s Largest Toxic Waste Dump

Wasted Breath Silence and Sickness at America’s Largest Toxic Waste Dump


You know the thing about this is, is it’s it’s hard to see… It’s hard to see that. I don’t look sick, you know. My name is Seth Ellingsworth I was an RCT radiological control technician at the hanford tank farms. SETH ELLINGSWORTH DOESN’T WORK ANYMORE. AT THE MOMENT, HE CAN’T.. BECAUSE HE CAN’T BREATHE HE USED TO BE STRONG ENOUGH TO TACKLE MOUNTAINS… NOW HE CAN BARELY CLIMB THE STAIRS. SPENING MOST OF HIS TIME SITTING IN HIS LIVING ROOM – DRINKING COFFEE. Do you really feel like this ruined your life? Everyday I struggle to breathe.  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. yeah, yeah it did. Yeah, it did. Yeah *coughing* Well, give me a minute. I’m coming when he does leave the house Ellingsworth is leashed to his nebulizer he also takes a combination of inhalers, steroids, and COPD medicine. I’ve been diagnosed with reactive Airway disease severe asthma and vocal cord dysfunction. I don’t know if there’s more to come or not Seth is so sensitive to what’s in the air He needs a mask, but he didn’t want the traditional kind that makes him look sick. I don’t wear it going into a gas station *laughing* Late at night, you know There are jokes now, and then about what his life has become, but there’s also anger. A lot of it. And it’s directed at the government facility where he worked. The whole time. I had no idea that I was breathing in stuff that could damage my health, that could ruin my life. Injured my lungs and make every part of every day so difficult. I had no idea the risk. I just went to work. I did my job and I trusted that these people were taking care of us. WE MET SETH ELLINGSWORTH AS WE STARTED INVESTIGATING SOMETHING CALLED THE HANFORD SITE. More than 2,300 miles across the country from our home base in DC FOR MONTHS – OUR TEAM HAS BEEN LOOKING INTO THE FACILITY. READING HUNDREDS OF PAGES OF REPORTS. GOING THROUGH COURT FILES…TALKING TO EXPERTS. ALONG THE WAY WE FOUND NOT JUST THAT WORKERS AT HANFORD WERE GETTING SICK. BUT THAT NO ONE REALLY UNDERSTANDS WHAT’S HURTING THEM. AND ALTHOUGH THE GOVERNMENT DOESN’T REALLY ACKNOWLEDGE THE SICKNESS THEY STILL SPEND A TON OF MONEY ON IT. Alright, so this place is a federal facility. It was actually built back in the 40s. It’s in the middle of the desert in the eastern section of Washington state. Most people have never heard of it but it actually played a huge role in World War Two Are you talking about like the Manhattan project? Exactly. So they made the plutonium that they eventually dropped on Nagasaki. But 70 years later they’re still dealing with that – this whole new legacy and it’s pretty ugly. My name is Tom Carpenter. I’m the executive director of an organization called Hanford Challenge We’re a group that monitors the cleanup at the most contaminated Nuclear site in the United States IT IS A MONUMENTAL TASK MONITORING A CLEANUP PROJECT THAT BEGAN BACK IN 1989. AND WILL CONTINUE FOR DECADES TO COME, COSTING TAXPAYERS BILLIONS OF DOLLARS. BUT THE COST OF THE CLEAN-UP AND THE PROBLEMS AND DELAYS THAT COULD PUSH THE DEADLINE FOR THE CLEANUP PROJECT BACK AS FAR AS 2040 – ARE JUST ONE PART OF THE STORY “Hanford offers everything a storyteller would want” AND JUST LIKE THIS GOVERNMENT VIDEO SAYS, THERE’S INTRIGUE AND CONTROVERSY ALTHOUGH CIRCA ALSO DISCOVERED SILENCE AND SICKNESS. WITH MORE THAN A BILLION DOLLARS ALREADY SPENT TO COMPENSATE PEOPLE WHO’VE BEEN HARMED AT HANFORD. IT’S TAXPAYER MONEY BEING USED AS THE FEDS IGNORE WARNINGS FROM EXPERTS AGAIN AND AGAIN. It was a strongest report ever, it found all kinds of major, major problems. And the hanford site and the government was kind of They just immediately start started talking about needing another report. It’s like what? No. THE REPORTS HE’S TALKING ABOUT – FOCUSED MOSTLY ON THE UNDERGROUND TANKS AT THE HANFORD SITE. THE ONES PACKED WITH MILLIONS OF GALLONS OF RADIOACTIVE WASTE It is the largest contaminated facility. If this is the most contaminated site in America, why is it not priority one? Headlines every single day about problems at Hanford? The government really doesn’t want it to be headlines, and I think they’re pretty successful at quieting things down CARPENTER HAS TAKEN THE FIGHT FROM HANFORD TO THE FEDERAL COURT TRYING TO SPEAK UP FOR WORKERS WHOSE JOB IT IS TO MOP UP THE MESS OF NUCLEAR HISTORY. put the camera down please You got a reason to be out here with a camera? HE’S TRYING TO BE LOUD VOICE AGAINST A CULTURE OF SILENCE THAT WE FOUND EXTENDS WELL BEYOND HANFORD’S FENCES. “He says he’s a journalist doing a story.” The Hanford site itself is huge. It’s more than 500 square miles about half the size of the state of Rhode Island It goes on as far as the eye can see but here’s the weird thing once you drive back into town It’s like this place isn’t even here. They just don’t even talk about it I don’t think it even crosses our minds on a daily basis that that is going on unless on the news or in radio WHAT’S HAPPENING AT HANFORD IS PART OF THIS AREA’S CULTURE A THEME IN A LOCAL PIZZA JOINT A MASCOT AT THE HIGH SCHOOL. NUCLEAR HISTORY IS FUN WHEN IT’S SERVED ON A PLATTER OR CHEERED AT A PEP RALLY. BUT THE VERY REAL DANGER IS SOMETHING PEOPLE WHO LIVE HERE DON’T ALWAYS ACKNOWLEDGE. I’ve never heard of anybody getting sick working out there. THAT’S DESPITE TOM CARPENTER’S BEST EFFORTS. HE AND HIS TEAM HAVE TRIED EVERYTHING TO GET THE WORD OUT THAT HANFORD’S OWN – HAVE BEEN HURT. AGGRESSIVE MAILING CAMPAIGNS… KITSCHY T-SHIRTS… EVEN STAGING A PUB CRAWL. BUT FIGHTING DENIAL SURROUNDING THE SITE IS EASIER SAID THAN DONE. They won’t admit there’s a connection between chemical vapors exposures and health effects. You know they’ll say all well, there’s temporary effects. No. There are very long term and lasting effects. *heavy breathing* SETH…IS LIVING PROOF I just breathe oxygen right from that bag. Without it I’m not able to do this for about a few minutes and I start running out of breath. HOOKED UP TO A MACHINE… LABORING ON A SIMPLE STATIONARY BIKE RIDE. THIS… IS PROGRESS. I’m having to get used to not being able to do things. Do you have hope? You don’t have hope? I’ve got better from when it happened. I’ve done a lot better from the first three or four months You know that was the worst time? And I do hope that I’ll just keep getting better I’ll be back… Sorry. *deep sigh* I kind of feel like I’m not a wife anymore, I’m a caretaker. It has drastically changed our life. A CAREER AT HANFORD CAN IMPACT MORE THAN JUST THE PEOPLE WHO WORK THERE. I’m Bertola Bugarin. I’m Abe’s wife. I’m Abegardo Garza. I’m an instrument tech. I worked at Hanford since 1983. We were out calibrating some instruments. I just all of a sudden ended up with a nosebleed. It felt like somebody was sitting on my chest THERE WAS NO ALARM BELL. NO SIGNAL SOMETHING TOXIC HAD BEEN RELEASED. BUT WHAT ABE….AND SETH…BOTH BELIEVE MADE THEM SICK ON THE TANK FARMS IS SOMETHING THE FEDS HAVE BEEN WARNED ABOUT FOR YEARS. SPONTANEOUS TOXIC VAPOR CLOUDS. ON THE FARMS – POTENTIALLY TOXIC FUMES ARE SENT UP THROUGH STACKS THAT ARE SUPPOSED TO PUT THE DANGER HIGH ABOVE AND OUT OF THE WAY. BUT THOSE FUMES CAN ALSO ESCAPE OTHER WAYS CREATING THOSE ROGUE CLOUDS. There was no doubt in my mind that that’s what did it. It is actually kind of nuts how many times those tank vapor clouds pop up in different government reports and whatnot. They’re all over this report. This is pretty wonky. It’s called the Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report. We’re going to call it T-VAT because it’s just too long otherwise. 150 pages, it was compiled by a group of academics and scientists who say they got no influence at all from the people at Hanford BUT AFTER WEEKS OF CALLING AND EMAILING THE 10 PEOPLE FROM THAT GROUP WE’RE TOLD WE CAN’T TALK TO ANY OF THEM EVEN THOUGH WHAT THEY SAID ON PAPER HAS BEEN PUBLIC FOR ALMOST THREE YEARS. THE GROUP LAID OUT 47 RECOMMENDATIONS HIGHLIGHTING SOME PRETTY HEAD SCRATCHING ISSUES CONSIDERING WHAT IT IS THEY ACTUALLY DO HERE. THEY FOUND THE PEOPLE MEASURING CHEMICALS IN THE AIR AFTER PEOPLE GET SICK DON’T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING EVEN WHEN THEY DO…THE LIST OF CHEMICALS THEY CHECK FOR IS INCOMPLETE AND HANFORD’S CONSTANT MESSAGE ABOUT HOW SAFE THIS PLACE IS, IS BASED ON A THEORY THAT DOESN’T ACTUALLY APPLY HERE. You’re working in the most toxic site in the United States. And for them to say it’s safe is crazy. [cleanup] is a very very big deal We have current and future generations to worry about. So the stuff in here is blowing my mind. You know how at Hanford the people who do the testing, these industrial hygiene technicians They’re the ones you would think have the basics on Chemical Hazards exposures and risks But this report here is basically saying their training, their resources and their expertise is totally insufficient, they just can’t do the job. There are echoes kind of that inability to do the job from this 2016 report from NIOSH. It looks like they hired a bunch of super inexperienced IHTs, The quality of the courses they were training them was relatively inconsistent, and then it looks like they also signed off on people going out into the field and testing for chemicals without ever really verifying their skills. That sounds smart. Well, I think we both know all the training in the world Realistically isn’t going to matter if you don’t actually show up on time to your job. And they don’t show up on time. This one talks about how sometimes it can take hours. And they cite right here – 120 minutes sometimes for a variety of reasons. You’re not measuring all the chemicals that could be present in the air And you haven’t done any analysis about how these chemicals might mix together and cause an additive or even a synergistic effect The effort to explain it all away has not been matched in any way shape or form by the effort to control these vapors. THAT’S ANOTHER BIG PROBLEM. HANFORD *HAS MEASURED* THOUSANDS OF SAMPLES AND COME UP WITH A LIST OF CHEMICALS OF POTENTIAL CONCERN. BUT THOSE ARE THE CHEMICALS WE KNOW TO TEST FOR WE’RE TALKING ABOUT STIRRING UP ATOMIC WASTE FROM ANOTHER CENTURY HERE. NO ONE COULD KNOW ABOUT, LET ALONE TEST FOR THE REACTIONS THEY COULD CAUSE OR THE CHEMICALS THEY COULD PRODUCE. REPORTS SHOW WE DON’T EVEN HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY TO SAMPLE FOR THEM SO JUST BECAUSE TESTERS DON’T FIND THE CHEMICALS WE KNOW ARE BAD DOESN’T MEAN WORKERS HAVEN’T BEEN EXPOSED TO SOMETHING POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS. Every worker out there should know the risk. And should know what they’re breathing in. They should know everything about these chemicals. And there shouldn’t be any question about what it’ll do to us We know that after talking to all these people they still have tons of questions about safety. It’s not resolved and it feels like when we’re talking about Hanford this all comes down to semantics. Yeah, it really does. Here’s the problem, the way that Hanford measures safety is based on something called an occupational exposure limit, or an OEL. And that’s a term that comes up a lot in a lot of these government reports. The way that those are measured is essentially by taking the known chemicals and measuring them over the span of an 8 hour work day. The whole day that they’re there breathing in that stuff. Here’s the problem though, we know that’s not actually how people are getting sick. They’re getting sick based on these spontaneous exposures, so these oels realistically don’t apply SO WORKERS LIKE ABE ARE TOLD THEY’RE SAFE….AND IT’S TRUE…BASED ON *SOME* OF THE SCIENCE. I regret thinking they were looking out for my safety. Trusting them? Trusting them. I regret that. THE TVAT REPORT MAKES IT CLEAR THERE’S A LINK BETWEEN THOSE RANDOM VAPOR CLOUDS AND THE KIND OF ILLNESSES THE PEOPLE WE’VE TALKED WITH HAVE EXPERIENCED. BUT EVEN HAVING IT IN BLACK AND WHITE DOESN’T MEAN WORKERS HAVE IT EASY AS THEY GO FOR TREATMENT AND THROUGH WORKERS COMP. This is just half of the medical records. FAMILIES LIKE THE GARZAS HAVE THE FRUSTRATION OF THE SYSTEM TO ADD TO THEIR SUFFERING. It’s more than a full time job, I can’t keep up with it. I got into this because they pissed me off. FAYE VLIEGER KNOWS BETTER THAN ANYONE THAT HANFORD WORKERS DOING BATTLE WITH THEIR OWN BODIES ALSO HAVE TO WAGE WAR WITH THE SYSTEM THAT MAKES IT HARD TO GET WORKERS COMP AND PAYBACK FOR WHAT THEY SUFFERED BY GETTING HURT. I was determined to fight the US Department of Energy, that’s who I was fighting. And I wasn’t going to let them win. SHE WORKED AT HANFORD TOO AND CLAIMS SHE GOT SICK AFTER BREATHING IN ONE OF THOSE ROGUE CLOUDS BACK IN 2002 SAYS IT TOOK YEARS TO GET COMPENSATION. 15 YEARS LATER – HER LIVING ROOM IS STACKED FLOOR TO CEILING WITH BINS FROM SOMEONE ELSE’S FIGHT. SHE REPRESENTS HANFORD WORKERS – WHOSE CLAIMS ARE STUCK IN LIMBO. 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. How often are you successful in taking these people through the process and winning their claim or them? You know if I kept those statistics I could get discouraged. So in Washington state it’s a little bit complicated. Because when these workers have a problem they file for something called LNI, Labor and Industries. And then that gets farmed out to this third party. That all sounds fine and good. But right now this third party is on the radar of these two US Senators. So what are they saying about it? Well we’ve tried to talk to them personally, we’ve contacted their offices the two of them together  – more than two dozen times. Right now they want the Inspector General to get involved Because they’re hearing from Hanford workers that either they’re being intimidated when they’re making these claims, or potentially that their claims are being arbitrarily dismissed or just discredited altogether. After going to the pharmacy, that’s my one month supply of stuff here. EVEN A BAG FULL OF PRESCRIPTIONS ISN’T ENOUGH TO MAKE SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE. SETH HAS HEARD PEOPLE AROUND TOWN THINK HE’S PLAYING SICK… PROVING IT…AND GETTING HIS WORKERS COMP CLAIM THROUGH…TOOK MONTHS. There’s a lot of money in this medicine. I wouldn’t be able to buy it if they weren’t covering it. The intermediary health care provider whose mission was mainly to block the health care or giving health care to these workers that have been affected by these vapors. WASHINGTON STATE REPRESENTATIVE LARRY HALER PITCHED A BILL TRYING TO MAKE IT EASIER FOR HANFORD WORKERS TO QUALIFY FOR WORKERS COMP. IT DIDN’T SURVIVE SILENCE AT HANFORD DID THOUGH…. HALER CLAIMS HE NEVER HEARD ABOUT PROBLEMS UNTIL LAST YEAR… EVEN THOUGH HE WAS A MANAGER – AT HANFORD. I [worked] at the hanford site for 40 years worker safety has always been always been our primary mission And it seems that that primary mission of worker safety has slipped. WHEN SAFETY SLIPS…THERE ARE CONSEQUENCES. AT HANFORD THAT MEANS INJURIES…AND ILLNESSES… FOR THE WORKERS WHO NOT ONLY FILE WITH THE STATE BUT ALSO THE FEDS. You have to show there’s more than a 50 percent chance that exposure to that chemical caused your illness. so if i’m a worker who can’t necessarily identify what i breathed in – what’s the chance my claim will be paid out if i get sick? Yes, I mean, that’s a difficult case DOCTOR WILLIAM SPRIGGS SPENT YEARS IN LEADERSHIP AT THE LABOR DEPARTMENT WHICH WADES THROUGH THE THOUSANDS OF CLAIMS FROM GOVERNMENT WORKERS WHO SAY THEY’VE BEEN HARMED. AS OF EARLY MAY – HANFORD ACCOUNTED FOR NEARLY 29-THOUSAND CLAIMS. IN DIFFICULT CASES – SPRIGGS SAYS – THE GOVERNMENT’S HANDS ARE OFTEN TIED NO MATTER HOW TRAGIC THE STORY. SYMPATHY IN THEIR HEARTS – DOESN’T COUNT FOR SQUAT IN THE CLAIMS PROCESS. They can only do what the law allows so as much as they might like to be helpful the law is clear about who can get benefits and who can’t. STILL THERE’S ALREADY BEEN A LOT OF MONEY THAT’S BEEN SHELLED OUT THAT ACKNOWLEDGES HEALTH PROBLEMS AT HANFORD WITH CLAIMS PAID TO THOUSANDS OF WORKERS WHO GOT SICK OR EVEN DIED. SINCE 2001 HAS BEEN PAID IN MEDICAL BILLS AND COMPENSATION RELATED SOLELY TO HANFORD. BUT IT’S NOT THE CONTRACTORS THAT RUN HANFORD WHO PAY THESE CLAIMS. IT’S YOU. SO IF CONTRACTORS ARE OFF THE HOOK WHEN THEIR WORKERS GET HURT ADVOCATES SAY THAT’S NOT EXACTLY MOTIVATION TO MAKE SAFETY A TOP PRIORITY. They don’t do anything because it’s the right thing to do. They do it because they have to You know satisfy you know people who are giving them a hard time Do for the right reasons right and that starts with acknowledgement they have yet to acknowledge even [if] there’s a harm Associated with these [vapors] or much less if anyone has been harmed. [it’s] like well. Why are you doing? any of this if you really believe [that] why not just stick your own head right there in the vent and Suck that stuff all day long, and then maybe you know if you survive that experience, right? But if you want to pipe it into your office instead of out [of] the tank you know then people say well Joe over [there]. He’s sucking the stuff all day long right so it must be [ok], but they don’t see that They don’t go to the site SO WHAT *HAS* HANFORD DONE? WE ASKED THE DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY TO TALK ABOUT ITS EFFORTS MANY TIMES IN WASHINGTON STATE AND DC AND WE ALSO SENT SPECIFIC QUESTIONS THAT WENT UNANSWERED. WE KNOW THERE’S NEVER BEEN A PUBLIC HEALTH STUDY LOOKING AT ALL THE HANFORD WORKERS WHO GOT SICK OR EVEN AN EFFORT BY THE FEDS TO TRACK THEM. BUT HANFORD SAYS IT HAS TAKEN A NUMBER OF STEPS TO STRENGTHEN WORKER SAFETY AND PREDICT AND PREPARE FOR POTENTIAL VAPOR EXPOSURES. THEY SAY THEY *PLAN* TO IMPLEMENT NEW MONITORING AND DETECTION EQUIPMENT. LAST YEAR – THEY STARTED OFFERING SUPPLIED AIR TANKS TO WORKERS. LAST MONTH THEY BEGAN GIVING THEM AIR-PURIFYING RESPIRATORS So you made this website? SETH ELLINGSWORTH 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. BUT IT’S MORE THAN THAT.
HE PROFILES WORKERS WHO’VE GOTTEN SICK. THEIR STORIES.
ARE NOW HIS STORY. AND HE’S JUST WAITING TO ADD ANOTHER PROFILE TO THE PAGE This was known about four years before it happened to me because it happened other people And it didn’t have to happen to me, and it didn’t have to happen to people after me And it still is you know it’s still going to happen

12 thoughts on “Wasted Breath Silence and Sickness at America’s Largest Toxic Waste Dump

  1. These corporations always get government to pass the financial burden on to the Taxpayers (without their knowledge or consent ) !!!

  2. It’s disgusting that I am required to carry workmans comp, disability, liability insurance. In the event insurances don’t cover the expenses I can loose everything I own and possibly go to prison.
    Work for the government and get sick or injured and nobody is liable and an employee is on their own.

  3. I feel bad for them. Most if not all of these people just as I have in the past, work/ed for the government as an INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR. Unfortunately as an independent contractor you are not afforded the protections given a hired employee. anything that happens is all on you.

    You aren’t covered by any Workman comp or disability. Even in the case of gross negligence. It’s the crap sandwich you have to eat. It is stated in legal speak, and you have to agree to it if you want to work.

  4. There are places along the coast of Australia that are polluting the environment. Including the great barrier reef. More needs to be done to fix these issues and stop innocent lives and the environment being put at risk

  5. proponents of nuclear power plants

    Say that nuclear power is cheap?
    No way !
    this is the legacy and we have left for the future .

  6. Your next news story:
    how the investigative journalist researching the hanford site, falls down the 6 flights of stairs in their apartment…8 times.

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