SEATTLE, WA – The Department of Energy will pay $925,000 and work to improve the safety of workers trying to clean up the polluted Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The department settled a lawsuit Wednesday.

The department will also pay $925,000 to the state and advocacy groups that had filed the suit.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson originally filed the suit in 2015. His suit was later combined with one filed by an advocacy group and he union representing the workers.

“This is a major victory for the brave men and women working to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation,” Ferguson said. “This is an historic outcome, but let’s be honest, it should not have required a lawsuit to get the federal government to do the right thing.”

Under the agreement, the Department of Energy will:

  • Phased testing of new technology to capture and destroy tank vapors, and, if successful, implementation
  • Install a vapor monitoring, detection, and alarm system in the areas where vapor exposures are most likely to occur
  • Maintain current safety measures implemented after Ferguson’s lawsuit, including supplied air and respirators, in place to keep workers safe during testing
  • Improve sharing of information regarding vapor events, worker protections, worker health monitoring, and medical surveillance
  • Pay Washington state and Hanford Challenge $925,000 to reimburse for costs and fees

While the testing takes place, the lawsuit will be on hold. If the department fails to live up to the agreement, Ferguson and the others may restart the suit.

Ferguson’s suit was filed after numerous studies had shown that over the previous 20 years, workers had been getting sick from exposure to vapors while working on cleaning the site.

There had been 19 separate reports issued on exposure to vapors from nearly 1,500 different volatile gases found in the tanks at Hanford.

The Department of Energy was told in 2014 by a report that they had commissioned, that not enough was being done to protect workers.

The Department of Energy originally tried to get the suit tossed, saying that not enough workers had become sick to warrant a lawsuit.

A judge rejected that argument in 2016.

“Under this Agreement, the cycle of exposure and illness due to unprotected chemical vapor exposures is finally being addressed and, hopefully, resolved,” Hanford Challenge Executive Director Tom Carpenter said.

“The parties have agreed to an enforceable settlement that requires specific actions to solve the vapor exposure issue at Hanford throughout the rest of the cleanup.”

Hanford originally opened in 1944 as a production facility for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb for the U.S. government. The plutonium used for the bomb dropped on Nagaaski was produced at the plant.

It’s located outside of Richland in southwest Washington.

When the government stopped producing plutonium in 1987, Hanford was considered the most-polluted nuclear plant in the country. It is currently the site of the largest environmental clean-up in the United States.