RICHLAND, Wash. — Seth Ellingsworth figured he was set for life. He was 22 and had just landed a coveted factory job in the company town he’d grown up in.
“I thought it was the greatest thing ever,” he says. “The place where people in the area worked that did well, I got a job there. I was really proud that I was a part of it.”
Now, at 35, Ellingsworth spends most days beset by tremors, struggling for oxygen, frequently confined to the ground floor of his home in Richland, Wash. It’s just outside his former place of work: the Hanford Nuclear Site.
Everyday life is a challenge now. It feels like my life is over.
Ellingsworth has reactive airway disease, a breathing condition that resembles severe asthma. He can't walk into a Home Depot for fear of the chemical fertilizer smell that hangs in the air. Secondhand cigarette smoke makes him cough violently. His fiancée doesn’t wear perfume anymore.
“Everyday life is a challenge now,” he says. “It feels like my life is over.”
Ellingsworth, like other workers, says his symptoms started on the job.
Hanford is the most contaminated former military complex in the country. During World War II, workers began making plutonium. They helped arm “Fat Man,” the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and thousands of other nuclear weapons during the decades-long Cold War that followed.
Now, a quarter-century after the Cold War ended, Hanford cleanup workers make up the frontlines in the United States’ ongoing battle to control that era’s environmental legacy. Chemical vapors from the site’s high-level nuclear waste — the country’s most toxic leftover of the arms race — is making workers sick and the U.S. Department of Energy — the agency that has run Hanford since 1977 — hasn’t done enough to protect its workforce, advocates say.
“It’s obvious that they don’t care,” Ellingsworth says.
At the multi-billion-dollar cleanup site, hundreds of workers patrol an area known as the “tank farms,” where massive underground tanks contain 56 million gallons of solid, liquid and sludge-like waste. The mixture is made up of more than a thousand chemicals, some of which emit toxic vapors into the surrounding environment.
The vapor problem in the tank farms is as old as some of the tanks themselves. According to Department of Energy reports, tank farm workers have been getting injured from chemical vapor inhalation since the 1950s. Then, in the late 1980s after clean-up began, another 16 detailed accounts were reported. Workers experienced immediate symptoms like nosebleeds, headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, blurry vision and a metallic taste in their mouths. They compared the odors to the smell of rotten eggs and dirty socks.
Ellingsworth reported his exposure in August 2015. He was monitoring radiation levels on vehicles leaving C Farm. As a truck approached outside of the tank farm’s fenced area — a designated safe zone that doesn't require respiratory protection — he smelled something.
“You smell things out there all the time,” he says.
This time, however, his lungs tightened up. His breaths drew shallow. Ellingsworth, an avid weightlifter at the time, said it felt like something was crushing his barrel chest.
Three months later he was bedridden. He couldn’t walk from his bedroom to the kitchen without running painfully short of breath. Forget snowboarding with his kids; he could no longer climb the staircase to put them to bed.
“There were a few months where I thought I was dying,” he said recently, glancing over his shoulder to make sure his fiancée was out of earshot. “There were a few months where I welcomed it."
Now, a year after Ellingsworth left Hanford, nebulizer treatments and a daily regimen of seven medications keep his symptoms under control. But neither he nor his doctor can predict what’s next for him.
Tank workers’ health records show that on-the-job symptoms like shortness of breath can foreshadow long-term problems, including neurological. One report found higher-than-normal cancer rates for exposed tank farm workers.
Gary Sall was 50 when he first noticed his symptoms. He couldn’t remember basic carpentry skills that he had performed in the tank farms for decades.
After visiting a doctor he was diagnosed with chronic toxic encephalopathy, a brain condition in which solvent molecules cross the blood-brain barrier and dissolve the victim’s brain tissue.
Seven years later, Sall’s mental abilities had declined to that of a young child’s, and he suffered from frequent hallucinations.
“No person should have to go through that,” says Barbara Sall, his widow. “No family should have to watch their loved ones go through that.”
Gary Sall died at 57.
The Department of Energy has studied the vapor problem for more than two decades.
In 1992, the department’s experts called for the agency to implement better safety measures, blaming failures in management for recent exposures. In another report at the time, Morton Corn, a former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said DOE’s inaction would warrant criminal prosecution in the private sector.
“The absence of high priority for solving this problem in 1990 with attendant lack of professional staff and resources could well have put someone on trial for criminal behavior,” he wrote.
Corn’s former agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, doesn’t have jurisdiction at Hanford or other DOE sites across the country, but the DOE has agreed to enforce OSHA standards for worker safety.
In the decades since then, more workers have reported exposures and the DOE has commissioned more reports to study the problem.
Despite those investigations, the DOE’s response to vapor concerns has been consistent: Air monitoring data shows that workers aren’t exposed to chemical vapors at levels that exceed “occupational exposure limits” — or levels deemed too dangerous to inhale based on OSHA and DOE standards.
“They’ve tried to model away this problem while ignoring the actual, physical evidence of it: these workers’ symptoms and illnesses,” says Tom Carpenter, who runs the Seattle-based whistleblower advocacy group Hanford Challenge. “Frankly, DOE deserves no credit.”
Carpenter, who has been tracking the vapor issue since those early reports were published in the 1990s, estimates that hundreds of tank farm workers have breathed in chemical vapors since that time.
Data is spotty and Carpenter’s group has not been able to access government reports detailing chemical vapor exposures for several years. But between 2002 and 2003, his group tallied more than 45 vapor-related injuries in the tank farms. After a waste spill in 2007, 24 workers reported vapor exposure. Since 2014, workers have filed 200 exposure incident reports, his group found.
When waste gets disturbed, more workers tend to report vapor exposures, according to Washington River Protection Solutions, DOE’s tank farm contractor. In recent years, the transfer of waste between aging, leaky tanks and newer double-shelled tanks has increased.
“It’s like Groundhog Day,” he says.
Last year, Hanford Challenge and a Hanford workers’ union joined Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson in suing the federal government and its tank farm operator, calling on a federal judge to enforce more safety measures in the tank farms.
The Department of Energy and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, declined to comment for this article.
The lawsuits, which are scheduled to go to trial in September 2017, call for mandated respiratory protection for workers in the tank farms. When waste is being disturbed, the area where respirators are required would be extended by 200 feet beyond the fence lines of the tanks farms. Finally, new monitoring and alarm systems would be installed.
In recent years, the tank farm operators have built taller vents on some of the tanks, distributing vapors higher into the air. After a spate of exposures in 2014, they made supplied-air respiratory protection mandatory in some tank farms and commissioned a report that made 47 recommendations to solve the problem. Washington River Protection Solutions laid out a plan to implement reforms.
DOE and its tank farm operator have filed a motion to throw out the case, arguing that the state is overstepping its authority. Hanford officials also have said that Ferguson’s demands, including mandatory respiratory protection, will slow down the cleanup work.
That, Ferguson said, further speaks to what is wrong with the attitude of Hanford management.
“There’s a culture of indifference to worker safety at Hanford,” he says.
For decades, the federal agencies that operated the nation’s nuclear weapons manufacturing plants were indifferent to worker safety. The head of the Energy Department said so back in 1989 at the end of the Cold War. Workers have often feared reprisal for speaking up about their safety concerns.
Today’s Hanford tank farm workers like Ellingsworth who develop work-related health conditions join the ranks of thousands of workers who fell ill from Cold War-era work at nuclear weapons sites across the country.
Since the 1940s, at least 100,000 workers have developed cancer or other illnesses that stem from their work at nuclear weapons sites, U.S. Department of Labor data shows. Congress set up a compensation program for injured nuclear workers in 2001. It has paid out $13 billion in restitution so far.
“As taxpayers, we’re paying out billions and billions of dollars in compensation to nuclear workers,” Carpenter says. “So we know workers are being affected by this, and the vapors in the tank farms are just part of it.”
Workers at Hanford have filed more than 27,000 applications seeking compensation for occupational illnesses. They're part of a broader network of sickened nuclear workers across the country. In total, workers at nuclear sites have filed more than 285,000 claims. Fewer than half of them result in payments.
The federal program has given rise to an industry of in-home health care for nuclear workers. Providers set up shop near nuclear weapons towns, help workers file compensation claims, and later offer healthcare services to successful applicants.
Faye Vlieger works for Cold War Patriots, the nonprofit outreach arm of one such company, Professional Case Management. She gathers evidence for former Hanford workers, helping to connect their illnesses to incidents on the job.
“I didn’t get into this for the money,” Vlieger says. “I got into this because of what happened to me.”
Vlieger is a former Hanford worker who has symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that stem from her 2001 exposure to chemical vapors. The Department of Labor denied her claim for seven years before ultimately awarding her healthcare coverage.
Today, the dining room in her Richland home overflows with plastic storage containers. Each tub, filled with documents and paperwork, represents an active claim for a worker. Former Hanford workers have filed about 27,000 claims under the federal program.
About half of cases get denied. In Vlieger’s garage, boxes and file cabinets represent workers who died while seeking compensation with her help. Some of them have been stored here for several years.
“I have to contact the families before I get rid of these,” she says. “You have to ask yourself: How much more pain [do] you want to cause these people?”
The program was intended to not only compensate for workers’ injuries, but also for a history of poor record-keeping and denying workers’ claims. Cold War workers have rarely had adequate paperwork to connect their symptoms to a specific event that occurred on the job.
Today’s tank farm workers face similar challenges because, although air monitoring data exists, the data shows that workers are safe. The 2014 report commissioned by the DOE called those air-monitoring techniques “inadequate,” failing to account for the brief, concentrated exposures that make workers sick.
Shortly after his 2015 exposure, Ellingsworth reported the incident to a supervisor, but health technicians on duty didn’t test the air for chemicals, he says. He has visited four doctors in the Tri-Cities area, and he says they refuse to offer a theory about where he developed his symptoms.
“You start to feel like it’s all in your head,” Ellingsworth says.
Last May, it happened again. About 50 more workers got medical evaluations following another vapor incident. All of them received blood tests and were cleared to return to work, the DOE says. Once again, vapors were measured “well below” occupational exposure limits.
I trusted the people I worked for. Why wouldn’t you trust them?
When he learned of DOE’s response, Ellingsworth reached his limit.
On a late afternoon last June, he and his kids made signs — “Tank Farmers Matter” and “DOE Is Evil” — and walked to a street corner near their house. It’s George Washington Way, the artery that empties Hanford at the end of the work day. It had been a year since Ellingsworth sat in this traffic, commuting home from Hanford.
“This is where I told people to meet me,” he says, looking out at the stream of cars moving past Richland’s federal building.
Ellingsworth didn’t expect many workers to join him. Healthy workers are proud of the job they’re doing, and sick workers don’t want to speak out. At least, that’s how Ellingsworth used to feel.
His daughter hoisted a hot pink sign into the air that read “You Made My Daddy Sick.” Former coworkers drove by, some looking in his direction and turning away.
Ellingsworth can't blame them. A year ago, he might have done the same thing.
“I trusted the people I worked for,” he says. “Why wouldn't you trust them?”
Top image: Seth Ellingsworth, 35, spends most days confined to his home in Richland, Wash. Credit: Ken Christensen
Ken Christensen is the EarthFix associate video producer for KCTS 9, the public television station in Seattle. He began his journalism career at Crain’s New York Business, a weekly newspaper covering business and politics in the five boroughs, where he reported breaking news and wrote features on small business. Ken later helped launch the publication’s web video unit as its first producer. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.More stories by Ken Christensen