March 11, 2004
Yucca Mountain: Another Example of Department of Energy’s Disregard for Workers’ Health
Statement by Wenonah Hauter, Director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program
The class action lawsuit filed today by current and former workers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Yucca Mountain site in Nevada is a chance to bring some accountability to an agency that has been sorely lacking it. Estimates are that more than 1,200 employees have been exposed to potentially dangerous amounts of silica dust while working at the site. Inhalation of silica dust can lead to silicosis, a potentially fatal lung disease. Three people have been diagnosed, and one of those has died from the disease.
The DOE admitted in a February 2004 letter to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that it was “aware of the potential for the silica to become airborne during mining operations, which commenced in 1992, and tunnel boring operations, which started in 1994,” yet it did not provide adequate respiratory protection and enforcement until 1996. In October 2002, a former industrial hygienist with the construction company that built the tunnel testified in a separate lawsuit that a supervisor ordered her to falsify data on the toxic dust levels so that they were recorded as lower than they actually were.
Unfortunately, this is indicative of a larger pattern by DOE of pushing projects forward regardless of the human costs. Nuclear weapons workers have routinely been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation since the 1940s, and many are still fighting to be fairly compensated. Workers at the Hanford site in Washington state who were exposed to dangerous vapors had their medical records falsified by doctors – under pressure from DOE contractors – to hide that their injuries were work-related, according to a front-page story in The Washington Post on Feb. 25, 2004. The DOE’s lack of concern for the health and safety of its workers needs serious scrutiny.
While the DOE has announced that it is implementing a free silicosis testing program for former site workers, obtaining information about the test program is all but impossible. Despite the rather complicated process for obtaining a medical exam, there is no Web site for workers to get information, and the hotline number is not widely distributed. If the agency can’t be trusted to safeguard the health of its own workers at Yucca Mountain, how can it be trusted to prioritize the health and safety of the public at large?