By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hilo Medical Center administrators say they hope to have fixed within a matter of weeks a pair of separate radiation leaks in the concrete vault at an East Hawaii oncology center.
Even so, they had little information to share this week concerning what exactly needs fixing, who would be doing the work, or how much the process would cost.
"We're continuing to work with outside consultants and local and mainland contractors to determine the best options, and we're also obtaining contract bids," said HMC CEO Howard Ainsley in an interview on Thursday.
"Unfortunately, the holidays and vacations have extended this overall process, but we do hope we'll be concluding all of this in the coming weeks."
The Tribune-Herald requested the names of the companies involved in the repair project, as well as the amounts of their contracts and descriptions of the repair work to be done, but hospital administrators said they did not have that information or could not release it.
The names of the two contractors with whom the hospital has been dealing cannot yet be released, said Hospital Systems Services Director Julie-Beth Ako, as the company from the mainland and the Hawaii company have yet to present their competitive bids.
"We don't yet have the quotes from both, and any information released could provide one a competitive advantage over the other," she said.
Ako also couldn't say what kind of repairs would be required.
"At this point, I don't think we can answer that question. ... There are a number of ways the issues we're dealing with could be dealt with," she said.
Hospital workers first found problems in March while testing the shielding surrounding the linear accelerator at Hawaii Pacific Oncology Center on Waianuenue Avenue in Hilo. A second leak was discovered in early November.
HMC plans to replace the cancer therapy machine, at a cost of $4.6 million, with a newer model, and was assessing the surrounding lead- and concrete-lined vault first, to determine whether it could handle the increased power of the new machine.
The hospital's radiation safety officer found, however, that each time the machine was switched on for very brief periods at a time, it was possible for trace amounts of radiation to escape into three small Veterans Affairs offices on the floor above.
Further testing revealed that the levels of radiation were too low to be a safety concern. However, the testing also found in early November a second area where the radiation could escape when the machine was switched on and pointed in a particular direction. That radiation was found to be escaping toward the rear of the building, fronting a parking lot and a cleaning supplies storage shed.
The second leak has been reported to the state Department of Health's Indoor and Radiological Health Branch, said Program Director Jeff Eckerd.
"The area in question wasn't an occupied area. It was a back area of the building, so I didn't have as much concern about it. There wasn't as much chance of exposure, because the numbers they were giving me weren't high enough," he said Friday.
Hilo Medical Center has fenced off the surrounding area around the second leak while preparing its repair plan, despite not being asked to do so by the health department, Eckerd added.
"I think they just did that as their own precautionary measure because of what had happened before," he said.
As for the first leak into the offices above the linear accelerator, Eckerd said he is continuing to assess the possibility of pursuing sanctions against Hilo Medical Center. Those offices remain locked and empty since the discovery of the leak.
"I'm still working through if there are going to be any potential monetary penalties. That one's a little up in the air at this point," he said.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.