Bill passes to help ill Hanford workers

A bill that should help more ill Hanford nuclear reservation workers qualify for state worker compensation may soon be headed to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

The bill would require the state’s worker compensation program to presume that a wide range of diseases were caused by occupational exposure at the nuclear reservation, rather that requiring employees to prove that it was Hanford exposure that made them sick.

That range of diseases includes:

  • respiratory disease
  • neurological disease
  • chronic beryllium disease
  • beryllium sensitization
  • multiple cancers

The cancer list includes leukemia and some types of Hodgkin’s disease and cancers of the breast, stomach, lung, bone, pancreas, colon and liver, with some limitations.

The legislative effort started last year with a bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, a former longtime Hanford worker. The bill passed the House, but did not advance to the floor of the Senate until Thursday, when it passed.

“It’s important that we take care of workers who have suffered due to being exposed to harmful chemicals and processes at Hanford,” Haler said after the Senate voted. “Despite all the safety precautions taken, families and individuals have been devastated by illness and disease.”

Because of the secrecy surrounding Cold War production of plutonium at the site for the nation’s nuclear weapons program, the hazards that workers may have been exposed to through the years are not well documented,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Seattle-based Hanford Challenge, at a recent hearing of the state Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.

Workers could be exposed to radiation, asbestos, beryllium or other hazardous chemicals, he said.

Larry Haler

“To prove exposure that happened 20 years ago does not make sense for these folks,” Carpenter said.

He said last year that state compensation claims for Hanford workers are denied at five times the rate of claims for other self-insured employers.

The Department of Energy is self-insured for worker compensation claims and contracts with a third-party administrator to handle claims. DOE pays medical expenses and a portion of wages lost because of a workplace injury or occupational disease if the state Department of Labor and Industries approves the claim.

When the bill was considered last year, much of the discussion was around chemical vapors associated with waste in Hanford’s underground tanks.

To prove exposure that happened 20 years ago does not make sense for these folks.

Tom Carpenter, Seattle-based Hanford Challenge

“We saw gut-wrenching testimony in committee last year,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, chairwoman of the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.

Abe Garza was in perfect health before he began working at Hanford more than three decades ago, his wife said at a public hearing last year before the state House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee.

In the past seven years, he had been hospitalized for breathing issues four times, she said. He had nerve damage in his hands and feet, and had a diagnosis of a brain disorder, toxic encephalopathy, that can be caused by exposure to chemicals, including heavy metals.

She blames exposure to chemical vapors, but his worker compensation claims have been denied by the Department of Labor and Industries, she said last year.

Other workers at Hanford have reported neurological and respiratory illnesses after exposure to chemical vapors at the tank farms, Hanford union officials say.

Since the House passed the bill last year, the Hanford nuclear reservation has had three emergencies, said Nickolas Bumpaous, government affairs director for union Local 598 and vice president of the Central Washington Building Trades Council.

A tunnel storing radioactive waste was discovered partially collapsed in May, and some workers inhaled or ingested radioactive particles in June and again at the end of the year as the site’s Plutonium Finishing Plant was being demolished.

PFP Glovebox Removal 6.5.13
Hanford workers pull out a highly contaminated glove box at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, much of which is now demolished. More than 30 workers have inhaled or ingested small amounts of radioactive particles during demolition of the plant. Courtesy Department of Energy

Test results on 180 workers are pending after the most recent spread of radioactive contamination was detected in December.

The bill would cover workers who spend as little as one eight-hour shift at any of the many areas of the 580-square-mile site used for plutonium production for the nation’s nuclear weapons program or for cleanup of waste.

A single exposure to asbestos, for instance, can result in disease 50 years later, Hanford Challenge’s Carpenter pointed out.

Heart problems would also be covered if they are experienced within 72 hours of exposure to toxic substances.

The presumption that covered illnesses were caused by working at Hanford could be refuted by other evidence, under the provisions of the bill.

Evidence could include, but would not be limited to, smoking, physical fitness, lifestyle, family history and worker exposure to toxins at other jobs or in their personal life.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, spoke against passage of the bill before the Thursday night Senate vote.

The bill is well intentioned, Braun said. But creating a lifetime presumption that an illness was caused by working as little as eight hours at Hanford is too extreme, he added.

The Senate vote Thursday was 35-14.

However, it needed to return to the House for concurrence on an amendment, but then should go to the governor.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews