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Former Worker: Officials Knew of Toxic Dust at Yucca Mountain

Jan 30, 2004 | AP Workers at Yucca Mountain in the mid-1990s were exposed to toxic dusts for several years before the Energy Department established effective health protections, according to several former employees with lung ailments they blame on their work.

Whistle-blower Gene Griego told the Las Vegas Review-Journal for a Friday report that workers were at risk from the onset of tunnel operations in 1993 until Yucca managers improved ventilation and dust controls in 1996.

A stop-work order in August 1996 prompted the Energy Department to strengthen safety enforcement, project officials said.

The Energy Department acknowledged this month that some workers may have been exposed to silica, a dust that can limit lung capacity and lead to death.

Margaret Chu, director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, said measures now in place are protecting Yucca workers. About 140 work at the site.

Griego gathered documents suggesting the Energy Department knew about the dangers of airborne silica and other fibrous minerals disturbed during drilling. The Yucca Mountain tunnel is five miles long with a diameter of 25 feet.

Griego began airing complaints before the Energy Department announced Jan. 15 it would offer free silicosis screenings for current and former workers at the proposed nuclear waste burial site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Notifications are being sent to between 1,200 and 1,500 current and former Yucca Mountain workers, the department said.

Energy Department spokesman Allen Benson said Thursday that health protections were always in place but were not always fully enforced.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Thursday demanded Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham explain whether the department was aware of high levels of silica at the Yucca site before tunnel construction began and what steps were taken to protect workers.

“It seems the Department of Energy has once again risked health and safety to push through the Yucca Mountain project.” Reid said. “They are trying to sell us a bill of goods that the project is safe, and meanwhile some of their own workers may have contracted a fatal illness from working at the site.”

Griego said he has found 25 current or former workers who were diagnosed with silicosis or who have reported symptoms, such as coughing up blood.

Barbara Harris of Las Vegas said Thursday her son, Robert Harris, 49, worked at Yucca Mountain and died in May 2002 of a cancer that started in a lung. She declined to discuss details.

Jeff Dean, 41, was a conveyer operator from June 1995 to October 1998 and a drilling foreman at the Nevada Test Site. He was diagnosed with silicosis last March.

“The workers were worried about the dust,” he said, “but they assured us the dust was within lab limits and your body gets acclimated to it.”

Before working at Yucca Mountain, Dean drilled underground weapons tests cavities for Reynolds Electrical and Engineering at the Nevada Test Site. He acknowledged his lung problems could be related to that work.

Griego, 52, of North Las Vegas, said doctors have diagnosed his condition as chronic obstruction pulmonary disease.

He is not a smoker, and blames his condition on exposure to a mixture of airborne silica and components of a class of minerals called zeolites.

He said he wore a painters mask as protection against the dust at work, and said the use of water for dust control was limited because scientists feared it would disrupt experiments on how fluids travel through the cracks and pores of the mountain.

A 1991 Los Alamos study warned that dry drilling at Yucca Mountain posed health concerns because of high silica content in the rock and an abundance of zeolites whose inhalation “may result in asbestos-like lung diseases.”

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