Hanford

Help on the way for ill Hanford workers

In the past Hanford workers were not always required to use supplied air respirators at the nuclear reservation’s tank farms to protect them from breathing in chemical vapors.
In the past Hanford workers were not always required to use supplied air respirators at the nuclear reservation’s tank farms to protect them from breathing in chemical vapors. AP

Ill Hanford workers will no longer have to prove to the state that their poor health was caused by working at the nuclear reservation.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed sweeping legislation that should help more Hanford workers win approval for state worker compensation claims.

“Washington state has recognized the often terrible price Hanford workers on the front lines of nuclear production and cleanup have to pay for their service to the nation,” Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge, said in a statement.

But business and insurance critics of the bill called it “breathtaking in its scope and inclusivity. The bill does not take into account any nexus between conditions and any particular class of workers or exposure,” according the legislative staff report on Substitute House Bill 1723.

Workers who spend as little as one eight-hour day at many areas of the nuclear reservation will no longer have to show that working at Hanford caused illnesses ranging from respiratory disease to many cancers.

Instead, the state Department of Labor and Industries must presume that the sickness was the result of a chemical or radiological exposure at Hanford.

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Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill March 7 to help Hanford nuclear reservation workers win approval of state worker compensation claims. He was joined by advocates for Hanford workers, ill workers and their families. Courtesy Washington House Republicans

The presumption may be rebutted by evidence that proves other causes for the disease, including smoking, lifestyle, hereditary factors, physical fitness or exposures to toxic substances at other jobs or at home.

The bill was first introduced in 2017 out of concern for central Hanford workers who can be exposed to toxic chemical vapors associated with chemicals held in underground tanks.

In March 2017, Lawrence Rouse stood before a state Senate committee and attempted to talk about his illness called toxic encephalopathy, a brain dysfunction caused by exposure to chemicals. He had worked at Hanford for more than 20 years.

As he struggled to get a few clipped words out, his wife took over saying, “He doesn’t speak well. I pretty much speak for him all the time.”

Hanford Challenge and the pipefitters union Local 598 promoted the bill, saying tank farm workers have developed serious neurological and chemical diseases from exposure to chemical vapors.

The bill passed the House but failed to pass out of the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee by a bill cutoff deadline.

But a nearly identical bill appeared before the same committee late in the legislative session after the partial collapse in May of a tunnel storing radioactive waste. More than 3,000 workers shelter in place, some for hours, before it was determined that no airborne radioactive material had been released.

Knowing that sick Hanford workers will now have more options than before — more hope than before — is something I’m proud of.

Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland

Since then, 41 Hanford workers have tested positive for inhaling or ingesting small amounts of radioactive material as the highly contaminated Plutonium Finishing Plant is demolished at Hanford. Demolition is currently halted.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland., a retired Hanford employee, had more traction this year.

It passed not only the House but the state Senate, which is now under Democratic control. Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, and Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, both supported final versions of the bill.

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Larry Haler

Haler called the bill one of the highlights of his legislative career as he prepares to retire from the House of Representatives after 14 years as his term expires this year.

Ill Hanford workers will have more options, and more hope, than before, he said.

“If I sat down and tried to imagine the perfect bill to end my legislative career, I’m not sure I could have scripted it any better,” Haler said. “It’s a legacy bill that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Hanford workers will no longer have to show the exact chemical or toxin that they may have been exposed to while working at Hanford that could cause illness.

About 1,500 chemicals are present in the headspace of Hanford’s underground tanks, with the vapors vented into the air.

Under the new law, workers, and families of workers who have died, and been denied compensation in the past can refile a claim under the new standards, according to Hanford Challenge.

The state compensation program is separate from a federal program, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, that also offers compensation and medical coverage for cancers and other diseases that could have been caused by Hanford exposure.

The claims may be filed any time within the lifetime of the worker, since many illnesses can take years to develop after exposure.

Although supporters of the bill received push back on the provision that workers needed to spend as little as eight hours at Hanford, they said that illnesses could develop after a single exposure to toxins, such as asbestos.

Earlier versions of the bill were changed to limit the areas of Hanford covered by the provision.

Now a worker must have been in areas of the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation where plutonium was produced during World War II or the Cold War for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. They also could have been in areas associated with environmental cleanup, such as the central Hanford landfill for low-level radioactive and hazardous chemical waste.

DOE is self-ensured at Hanford, with claims administered by its contractor, Penser North America, and decided by the state Department of Labor and Industries.

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Hanford workers have ingested or inhaled small amounts of radioactive material as contamination has spread during demolition of the nuclear reservation’s Plutonium Finishing Plant. Courtesy Department of Energy

State denial of claims is routine, said families and workers who testified as the legislation was considered. Workers were denied wages and coverage of medical expenses.

Hanford Challenge said that workers who contest denials are met with aggressive DOE legal tactics, and that the compensation program provides opportunities for DOE interference.

The new law takes effect 90 days after the end of the current legislative session, which could be Thursday.

Covered diseases under the law include:

▪  respiratory disease

▪  beryllium sensitization or disease

▪  heart problems experienced within 72 hours of an exposure

▪  neurological disease

▪  many cancers, including leukemia, some lymphomas and cancer of the thyroid, breast, esophagus, colon, bone, brain and others, with some exceptions.

The state compensation program is separate from a federal program, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, that also offers compensation and medical coverage for cancers and other diseases that could have been caused by Hanford exposure.

DOE plans to open a new center to help ill Hanford workers and their survivors sort out their options for compensation and care, including available federal and state programs.

The center is expected to open this spring at 309 Bradley Blvd., Suite 120, Richland.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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