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Health Hazards at Yucca Mountain

Air Date: Week of

Workers building the country's proposed nuclear waste storage site say Yucca Mountain is already a danger even before any radioactive waste arrives. The workers say they were exposed to hazardous silica dust during years of tunnel digging. Jeff Young's investigation finds evidence that energy officials took little action although they knew the dust exposures were well above safety limits.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is one of the nation’s largest and most controversial public works projects. There’s $800 million in the White House budget request for this year to keep Yucca Mountain on target to begin operations in 2010, although there’s also a federal lawsuit pending that seeks to prevent it from ever opening.

The Department of Energy facility is designed to store waste from nuclear power plants for millennia in safety. But construction workers claim Yucca Mountain is already a hazard even without radioactive waste. They say they’ve been exposed to an old-fashioned but often deadly hazard: silica dust. Now the workers, their lawyers, and some members of Congress want to know if worker safety and health were intentionally compromised to build the Yucca Mountain tunnels. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.


YOUNG: This tram carries scientists, workers and visitors through a 25 foot wide tunnel some five miles into the rock of Yucca Mountain. The tunnel was the first visible progress on what the Department of Energy and the majority of Congress hope will become a final resting place for the country’s radioactive waste.

The tunnel’s construction in the early to mid 90s employed some 1,200 people eager for good paying jobs. Jeff Dean worked the swing shift when a massive tunnel-boring machine – nicknamed “the Yucca mucker” – would hit its peak performance. Dean says the crew was under pressure to keep it running.

DEAN: The attitude was let’s get this machine going. And these people that we had, they’d crack the whip and you’d go.

YOUNG: And they did keep it going, at one point breaking a world record by excavating more than 700 feet of tunnel in just a few days. As the pace increased, so did the dust. Gene Griego worked behind the machine in support of the project’s scientists. Griego says the dust brought complaints but little change in the workplace.

GRIEGO: You can’t see 25 yards down the tunnel. It’s like a mist. You go home at night and blow your nose and the tissue turns brown. Right after the complaints started coming in, DOE and the constructors started issuing painters masks for respiratory protection.

YOUNG: Griego says the masks were not the high-efficiency filters miners wear, but cloth held to the face with a rubber band. Their use was voluntary, not required. Miners are known for their hardiness, more likely to put up with some dust than complain and risk losing a paycheck. And besides, Dean says, the companies in charge of the mining had their own specialists in industrial hygiene – or IH – looking out for worker safety.

DEAN: I felt that the IH people are doing the monitoring, and I put my trust that if there was high levels that we would be shut down. So, we kind of had to put our trust in them.

YOUNG: Now Dean and Griego wonder if that trust was misplaced. Griego recently discovered DOE documents – many dating to well before the tunnel’s construction – showing that the department and some companies it contracted knew something the workers did not: the dust they worked in and breathed was dangerous.

He read that Yucca’s rocks could produce silica dust, which can scar lung tissue and cause the sometimes-fatal disease silicosis. He read that early core drillings at Yucca also showed large veins of the fibrous mineral erionite, a carcinogen similar to asbestos, only more potent.

Workers were exposed to silica dust during the construction of this tunnel at Yucca Mountain. (Photo: Jon Christensen)

GRIEGO: I’m thinking, I’m a dead man. And that’s when I decided, looking at all the proof, that DOE and it’s contractors intentionally exposed us to these carcinogenic substances, just to meet their milestones. And, of course, collect their hefty bonuses.

YOUNG: DOE’s first admission of a dust problem at Yucca came this year with the start of a silicosis-screening program for Yucca’s workers. On the second page of a press release, the department notes, "in early years, use of respiratory protection was not consistently applied." That’s a bit of an understatement, according to some industrial hygiene professionals who worked there. Mike Taylor has 20 years of experience in workplace safety. His most frustrating years were those at Yucca Mountain in the mid-90s when he tried to change work safety programs.

TAYLOR: It was a joke. Back then if you stopped work you risked getting fired. You risked losing your job.

YOUNG: Taylor says when he first approached a subcontractor about taking dust samples they had no equipment to even perform them. When he finally did take samples – with borrowed equipment – they showed elevated levels of silica dust. But managers were still reluctant to act.

TAYLOR: You’re in their office and you’re telling them that they have a very serious problem here, and that it’s not just regular silica dust, this is respirable crystalline silica dust. And oh, by the way, it has these other possibly hazardous zeolites in it and you need to do something. They were just not equipped to handle what you were telling them.

YOUNG: Taylor says it took six months to get workers masks with high efficiency air filters. But by then, he estimates, they had mined a mile and half of tunnel. Department of Energy officials declined to be interviewed for this story. Agency officials told Congress an internal investigation of the project and the contracting companies is underway.

Half a dozen prominent companies were involved with the tunnel, including Bechtel and TRW. One most directly involved with the drilling was Peter Kiewit Sons company of Omaha. Kiewit officials also declined an interview, but a company spokesman read from a prepared statement:

JANSEN: We began an internal review of our project records that document the significant air quality testing and employee safety program in place during our work at Yucca Mountain. We have already started to provide those records to the Department of Energy. We will continue to work with the Department of Energy as their investigation continues.

YOUNG: DOE isn’t the only body investigating. Workers have filed suit against the contracting companies at Yucca. Attorney Joe Egan says the suit charges that companies knew of the hazards but did little to prevent them. And Egan says a Kiewit safety employee says she was forced to alter records on silica dust samples.

EGAN: The whole operation was now, admittedly, very pathetic.

YOUNG: Egan says basic worker protections were ignored. For example, mining operations often use a fine mist of water to cut down dust. But Yucca’s scientists were studying hydrology, or the flow of water through rocks, and they did not want large amounts of water introduced to the work site.

EGAN: That’s fine and dandy but what they should have done is what their scientists also warned them, that if they were going to do dry drilling they would have to take extreme precautions to protect the workers. And all the things that they were recommended to do, they simply didn’t do.

YOUNG: Egan’s suit seeks class action status for workers and visitors who spent more than two hours in the tunnel. He predicts as many as 2,000 people may have been exposed, a number that draws comparison to the country’s worst silicosis event: the Hawk’s Nest tunnel disaster of the 1930s.

CHERNIACK: It was probably the greatest loss of life and greatest catastrophe caused at an industrial site in the United States in our history, really on the level of something like Bhopal in India.

YOUNG: That’s occupational health physician Martin Cherniack, who wrote a history of the event, “The Hawks Nest Incident.” Union Carbide had thousands of men tunnel through a mountain at Hawk’s Nest, West Virginia, for a hydroelectric power project. The workers were not told they would dig through silica, nor were they protected from the dust.

This newsreel footage from the 30s records a visit to the workers camp, known as the “town of the living dead” due to the scores of men sick and dying from silicosis.

MAN: I worked in Hawk’s Nest tunnel for four months. And each and every day that I worked in that tunnel I had to carry off 10 to 14 men who was overcome by the dust,…

WOMAN: My husband Cecil Jones died of working in the Hawk’s Nest tunnel, contracted silicosis…

YOUNG: Cherniack estimates 700 died; a painful lesson about the need to prevent silica exposure. Today, silicosis is considered completely preventable. And yet, 60 years after Hawk’s Nest, workers were exposed to silica dust at another tunnel for another energy project at Yucca Mountain.

CHERNIACK: The fact that some of these reported exposures occurred is actually alarming. And in this sense it really does suggest that on the corporate and the governmental level there was a real neglect on part of executives and officials.

YOUNG: The Department of Energy largely polices itself on matters of worker health and safety, and some point to the Yucca exposure as evidence that the self-regulation is not working.

Davitt McAteer was in charge of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, through much of the 90s. McAteer says DOE was warned about silica at Yucca years before the work started. MSHA had an agreement with DOE to sample the air and recommend changes – but no authority to order them. MSHA records from ‘96 show silica dust levels far above the enforcement level – two, three or even four times the allowable threshold. One sample was twenty times the threshold. But when MSHA asked for changes, McAteer says, DOE did not want to hear it.

MCATEER: We sent the notices of noncompliance. We asked them to take action. And, in effect, they were taking the position that the letters of noncompliance were, in effect, a nuisance to them and were causing them to have to stop work or to correct and to remedy this. And they, in fact, attempted to tell us to go away, yes.

YOUNG: Rather than make changes, McAteer says, DOE attempted to terminate the agreement. He managed to negotiate a new one, and DOE later temporarily halted the tunnel work to address safety issues. But the incident showed how difficult it was to get DOE to accept outside regulation. Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, says DOE’s contracting practices are at the root of the problem.

REID: We have a situation where there is no oversight. We have a situation where the Department of Energy is actually led around by the contractor, rather than vice versa.

Yucca Mountain

YOUNG: Reid called a Congressional hearing to express his outrage about the safety problems. Like most political leaders in Nevada, he opposes the Yucca Mountain project, and he sees the dust exposure as one more reason to doubt DOE claims that the nuclear waste site will be safe.

REID: There is a mad dash to dig this tunnel. They don’t care how much it costs and who it hurts. And I think this is just an example of why we need to slow down.

YOUNG: Reid also sits on a Congressional committee with oversight on DOE’s budget, where he confronted Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. Abraham told the committee that dust problems at Yucca came well before his tenure and have since been resolved.

ABRAHAM: The issues that took place in the mid-1990s came to our attention in ‘03. We are moving aggressively to provide a program for workers for screening to determine the nature of any illnesses that may have emanated from that exposure. And we take this very seriously.

YOUNG: Abraham urged former Yucca workers worried about their health to join the silicosis-screening program. But workers like Gene Griego say that’s not enough. Griego’s a fit 52-year-old non-smoker who has already been diagnosed with a lung ailment. He fears that will later become silicosis and he wants his family taken care of if that happens. He also wants some sense of justice.

GRIEGO: I think everyone involved in this criminal act should go to jail. But before they’re marched off to jail they ought to line us all up -- all the people they’ve injured -- look us in the face and ask for our forgiveness.

YOUNG: It’s too early to say with certainty what illnesses the Yucca exposure might have caused. Griego’s been doing his own informal health survey of former workmates. Of 50 letters he sent out, 20 workers have responded, saying they’ve been diagnosed with silicosis or have similar symptoms. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

[MUSIC: Howlin’ Wolf “Rockin’ the Blues” KILLING FLOOR (Magnum – 1996)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: worker safety issues at Yucca Mountain may be just the tip of an iceberg. A former Energy Department insider says worker health and safety problems at DOE facilities are widespread and have their roots in Cold War politics. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: The Dresden Dolls “Missed Me” DRESDEN DOLLS (Eight Foot Records – 2003)]



CDC on Silicosis

Yucca Mountain Project

Yucca Mtn. Silicosis Screening Program


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