State bill for ill Hanford worker compensation resurfaces

Another bill has been proposed in the state Legislature to ease compensation requirements for Hanford workers exposed to chemicals or radioactive materials.
Another bill has been proposed in the state Legislature to ease compensation requirements for Hanford workers exposed to chemicals or radioactive materials. Department of Energy file

A bill that would allow ill Hanford workers to more easily get worker compensation claims approved has popped up very late in the state legislative session.

It’s essentially the same as a bill passed earlier this year by the House. But the initial bill failed to be scheduled for a vote to pass out of the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee before an early April deadline.

Since then, three Democratic state senators from the west side of the state have introduced a new Senate bill that was scheduled to be discussed on Wednesday in an executive session of the same Senate committee. But the executive session was canceled after a hearing on another bill ran long.

Now the committee is unlikely to meet again this session as the Legislature works to pass a budget by Friday, making chances slim that the bill will advance this year. But the introduction of the new bill signals continued interest by lawmakers in the issue.

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, introduced the new Hanford worker bill, SB 5940, out of concern for worker safety after the partial collapse of Hanford tunnel storing highly radioactive waste was discovered in May, according to her staff. Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, and Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, also are sponsors.

The breach in the tunnel resulted in an emergency order for more than 3,000 workers to shelter in place, some for hours, before it was determined that no airborne radioactive material had been released. No one was injured.

A wide range of illnesses would be presumed to have been caused by Hanford exposure under the bills. Illnesses would include many cancers, respiratory disease, some heart problems, neurological disease and chronic beryllium disease.

But concern remains because of aging infrastructure at Hanford, some dating to the 1940s, while the Department of Energy is expected to continue cleanup of radioactive and hazardous chemical contamination at the nuclear reservation for decades to come. Hanford produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons programs from World War II through the Cold War.

Proving a worker compensation claim can be impossible for workers, when even DOE may not know precisely what workers are exposed to at Hanford, said workers and former workers who testified at hearings on HB 1723.

The state Department of Labor and Industries requires proof that an exposure to chemical vapors or other hazardous chemical or radioactive materials at Hanford caused a worker’s illness.

But the original bill that passed the House, HB 1723, and the new Senate bill, SB 5940, would require the state agency to presume that a wide range of illnesses were caused by working at Hanford. A worker would have to be assigned to just one eight-hour shift anywhere at Hanford to be covered.

DOE, which is self-insured and hires a contractor to administer worker claims, could rebut the presumption that disease was caused by Hanford exposure with evidence about a worker’s health, including smoking, weight, lifestyle, hereditary factors or exposure from other activities.

Covered diseases would include a wide range of cancers, respiratory disease, any heart problems experienced within 24 hours of an exposure, and neurological disease. The coverage would continue for a worker’s lifetime.

The Washington Self-Insurers Association opposed the bill, pointing out that one eight-hour shift on a site half the size of Rhode Island would entitle a worker to a presumption of coverage for life.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews