After 12 years at Hanford, this father is wracked by seizures. New state program offers hope

Bill Evans has been unable to work since he suddenly began having seizures after 12 years at the Hanford nuclear reservation. Cuts he suffered during one of his recent seizures continue to heal.
Bill Evans has been unable to work since he suddenly began having seizures after 12 years at the Hanford nuclear reservation. Cuts he suffered during one of his recent seizures continue to heal. Tri-City Herald

Bill Evans remembers the date of the last day he worked at Hanford like other people might remember a birth date.

In effect, May 26, 2016, was like a birthday — the start of his new life wracked with seizures at age 42.

They have left the Richland father of three unable to drive, reluctant to go out in public and covered in scars.

Some are from cuts when he fell into a glass curio cabinet. Another on his head is from hitting a tool chest in his garage when a seizure struck.

He suspects his problems are caused by exposure to chemicals, possibly mercury, during the 12 years he worked at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

He did not think he could qualify for the federal workers compensation program that has helped many ill Hanford workers.

One of his doctors said it was a possibility that he has toxic encephalopathy, a brain disorder that some Hanford tank farm workers have developed. It can be caused by exposure to chemicals.

But he has not had an official diagnosis of the disease to help him gain approval under the federal program, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.

However, a state program expanded in the last legislative session for Hanford workers may offer some hope.

Bill evans.jpg
Cuts from glass broken during a seizure have required Bill Evans of Richland to get up to 30 stitches at a time. Courtesy Bill Evans

The program took effect June 7 and already has a dozen claims, according to the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries.

More claims likely are on their way to Olympia. The Department of Energy, which is self insured, has 60 days to forward claims to the state, which decides whether to approve or deny.

The expanded state program no longer puts the burden of proof on workers, requiring them to show that working at Hanford exposed them to a specific hazard and that it caused a covered illness.

Instead, the Department of Labor and Industries must presume a wide range of illnesses were caused by chemical or radiological exposure at Hanford.

Covered illnesses include many types of cancer, respiratory disease, disease caused by exposure to the metal beryllium, and the illness that matters to Evans — neurological disease.

State L&I has yet to approve or deny any claim under the new Hanford program, but Evans is hopeful.

He was working at the heavily contaminated Plutonium Finishing Plant in 2016. He was a nuclear chemical operator who had worked his way into a position as a first-line supervisor.

His work included helping clean out and remove glove boxes where Hanford workers would reach their hands through gloves attached to portals to work with plutonium.

Plutonium arrived at the plant in a liquid solution and workers made it into metal buttons the size of hockey pucks or into oxide powder to be shipped to a nuclear weapons manufacturing plant from the 1950s into the ‘80s.

Bill Evans of Richland is treated after one of his frequents seizures. Courtesy Bill Evans

His job also included several entries into one of the most contaminated areas of the plant, the central canyon of the Plutonium Reclamation Facility where waste scraps were processed to pull out any usable plutonium.

Workers also had to remove other toxic material from the plant, including mercury, to prepare it for teardown.

Evans had no family history of seizures, nor had he ever had one, until the day in 2016 when he had a grand mal seizure as he sat in a chair at the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

He was told he could not return to Hanford work until the seizures were under control.

The seizures “just suddenly appeared,” he said.

At first, he had one or two a month. They have increased to nearly daily incidents, he said.

In addition to grand mal seizures, with a loss of consciousness and muscle contractions, he also has brief partial seizures.

If he’s feeling well and not slurring his word and stumbling, he sometimes can be left with his 19-month-old son for short periods of time, he said. He and his wife, Tiffany, also have two daughters, ages 9 and 11.

He’s reluctant to go out in public because he’s afraid he’ll have a seizure, he said. He may look like he is drunk, bumping into walls and tripping over objects.

Hanford workers pull out a highly contaminated glove box at the Plutonium Finishing Plant. Courtesy Department of Energy

He’s hoping to get a seizure response dog that could protect him if he has an episode in public or could sound the alert for help at home.

He’s started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the dog, including travel expenses to California, and to help pay for medical expenses not covered by his insurance. Any money not needed will be donated to Little Angels Service Dogs.

So far, contributions at www.gofundme.com/epilepsy-response-dog total about $1,300 toward a $50,000 goal.

Hanford workers who have previously filed claims that were denied under the state worker compensation program can request reconsideration.

Workers must have spent just eight hours working at the Hanford site in areas used as part of the World War II or Cold War plutonium production process or areas associated with environmental cleanup.

Since some illnesses can take years to develop after an exposure, there is no time limit on when a worker may file a claim.

A new worker-help center, the Hanford Workforce Engagement Center, has opened at 309 Bradley Blvd., Suite 120, in Richland to help ill workers navigate their options for benefits. Call 509-376-4932 for information.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews