Senator Harry Reid called for a federal investigation into safety practices at Yucca Mountain Wednesday after the Energy Department acknowledged it had been aware of the potential for silica-laden dust to become airborne during mining operations at the planned nuclear waste site.
"Yucca Mountain workers contracted a fatal illness because DOE wasn't concerned with safety precautions," said Reid, D-Nev. "Silicosis is a terrible, deadly disease. It is also 100 percent preventable."
In a letter sent Wednesday, Reid urged Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to investigate the possibility of silica exposure at the Yucca Mountain site, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"The DOE's policy of self-regulation, to the extent it enforced worker health standards, has apparently failed to ensure the proper safety of its contractor work force," Reid wrote in the letter.
A Labor Department spokesman said he could not immediately comment on Reid's letter, which follows former workers' claims they contracted chronic lung ailments after inhaling silica during tunnel excavation between 1994 and 1997.
Joe Davis, a DOE spokesman in Washington, D.C., said Reid was referring to events that happened a decade ago at the site under the helm of a contractor who had safety measures in place but "were not adequately enforced in our opinion."
He emphasized the DOE has been in compliance for the past five years "with all state regulatory requirements with respect to air quality at Yucca Mountain" and has set up a silica-screening program to address health concerns of past and current employees.
Davis said the DOE welcomes an investigation. He said recent inspections by the Nevada Environmental Protection Division did not find any violations of the federal or state Clean Air Acts.
In a letter to Reid on Tuesday, Yucca Mountain project director Margaret Chu acknowledged the DOE was aware of the presence of silica and the potential for it to become airborne during mining operations, which began in 1992, and tunnel boring operations, which began in 1994.
"Dust masks were provided to workers to protect them from potential exposures to respirable silica during these early operations, but their use was not mandatory," Chu wrote. "After 1996, more advanced respiratory protection equipment was provided, and its use was enforced."
Also Wednesday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that a former employee of the company that built the exploratory tunnel at Yucca Mountain claimed she was ordered to falsify reports on toxic dust levels.
Judy Kallas, who was employed as an industrial hygienist with Kiewit Construction, made the accusation in October 2002 in an unrelated gender discrimination case against Bechtel Nevada, the main government contractor at the Nevada Test Site.
In the deposition, Kallas said a Kiewit supervisor told her in 1996 to alter her field notes to show that silica dust levels were less than they were in the five-mile, 25-foot diameter tunnel being built in Yucca Mountain, the site selected to entomb 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and highly radioactive waste.