Hanford workers point the finger

  Since a May 14 minor explosion at the Hanford, Wash., Plutonium Reclamation Facility, four employees say they are experiencing symptoms associated with toxic chemical exposure.

Ten employees were outside the facility in a trailer at the time of the explosion, which was caused by chemicals accidentally allowed to concentrate in one of the plant's holding tanks. Plant supervisors gave workers conflicting instructions, witnesses say, leading them into the path of a plume of smoke from the blast, where some noticed a metallic taste in their mouths. All eventually went to a medical center in Richland, Wash., where examiners concluded that there had been no dangerous exposure.

But weeks later, four still report sleeplessness, respiratory problems, headaches and inexplicable bouts of rage. They believe they were exposed to chemicals, and that the situation was not handled properly, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on May 29. The employees say they'll take the Department of Energy to court.

Steve Veitenheimer, spokesman for the Department of Energy, would not comment on the litigation, but says, "There was some confusing information and miscommunication at the time." He says the employees have been examined extensively at three different facilities, and "they show no evidence of contamination."

Damon Platis, a lawyer representing the Hanford workers, refused to discuss the case, as did Winston McCulley Jr., one of the workers involved in the accident. He says only, "We're going through hell right now." - Emily Miller