‘Fearless advocate.’ Founding leader of Tri-Cities area federal training center dies

The founding leader of the Volpentest HAMMER Federal Training Center near Richland, Wash., has died.

Karen McGinnis, 71, was the project manager as the center was being planned and then led the center for 25 years, retiring in 2018.

She helped it grow it from an idea to a world-class training center, training workers, supporting emergency response and promoting a strong safety culture for workers doing environmental cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation, said former Hanford contractor Hanford Mission Integration Solutions when she retired.

“She dedicated her career to the Hanford workforce, the worker trainer program, and our numerous national programs,” said Paul Vandervert, who became HAMMER director at her retirement, in an announcement Wednesday of her death.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who has at the groundbreaking ceremony for HAMMER in 1995, said McGinnis will be greatly missed.

“Karen McGinnis was truly one-of-a-kind — a natural leader whose dedication, boundless energy and wisdom touched many lives,” Murray said. “She helped build something extraordinary at the Voltenpest HAMMER Federal Training Center. Hanford workers and so many other people around the world are better off today because of Karen’s vision, her tireless work, and her dedication to their safety and well-being.”

McGinnis’s legacy will live on for generations to come, said David Reeploeg, vice president for federal programs at the Tri-City Development Council. Reeploeg has served on the HAMMER Steering Committee since 2017.

“Karen was truly a visionary who made incredible things happen through sheer force of will and hard work,” he said. “What Karen accomplished at HAMMER has touched the lives of countless workers at Hanford and across the country, who are safer because of what she worked to create.”

The Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council called her “a fierce defender of Labor,” in a social media post Thursday.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., congratulated her on her retirement in 2018 with a speech on the House floor, saying she had a “passion for worker safety.”

The center trains workers holding some of the nation’s most hazardous jobs — nuclear waste cleanup and emergency response.

Karen McGinnis was the founding leader of the Volpentest HAMMER Federal Training Center near Richland.

“Her leadership has made HAMMER one of the premier training centers in the world” and helped the federal government to fulfill its continuing obligation to cleanup the Hanford site, Newhouse said.

HAMMER is on an 88-acre campus on the southern edge of the Hanford nuclear reservation on Horn Rapids Road.

It’s goal is to provide “training as real as it gets.”

That includes for workers on the Hanford site — who receive training on topics such as radiation and respiratory protection — and also for workers at other agencies, including training of international border patrol agents and for homeland security efforts.

Workers come to Hanford from Tri-Cities agencies and from other countries to train on fire suppression, hostage rescue, high-speed pursuit and drug enforcement.

The center includes props for hands-on training, including a multi-story burn building for propane-fueled fires, a buried simulated waste site, confined spaces with the ability to simulate a trench collapse, a hosting and rigging pad for crane safety training, a hazardous materials training pad, and concrete pads for flammable liquid and other fires.

The HAMMER training center was used by the U.S. Army for MH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter night training last year. Soldiers used HAMMER to create the look of a city requiring the use of night vision goggles during hovering, takeoffs and landings.

“Karen’s dedication and commitment to partnership was legendary,” according to Vandervert. “She was able to pull together partnerships at HAMMER with senior leaders of international labor, community, corporate, government, tribal, academia and regulatory organizations,”

He said her energy was contagious as she worked as “a fearless advocate for the health and safety of workers, law enforcement, and emergency responders.”

McGinnis, who had lived in the Tri-Cities for 48 years, had been undergoing treatment for cancer for many years, according to Vandervert.

She is survived by her husband, Bill, and daughters, Leslie and Jessica.