Feds threaten to sue over law to help sick Hanford workers

Fixative application at Plutonium Finishing Plant

Watch as Hanford workers apply fixative to contaminated areas around the Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford.
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Watch as Hanford workers apply fixative to contaminated areas around the Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford.

The Department of Justice has threatened to sue the state of Washington to block an expansion of the state worker compensation program for ill Hanford workers.

The legislation passed in 2018 was intended to make it easier for Hanford workers to win approval of claims for a wide range of illnesses.

They no longer have to prove when filing a claim that their medical conditions — including respiratory and neurological illnesses and multiple types of cancers — were caused by working at the nuclear reservation.

The new law violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution by attempting to directly regulate the federal government, according to a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee from the Justice Department.

The state law also discriminates against the federal government by holding it to different standards than other entities in the state, the Justice Department said.

The Department of Energy is self-insured for worker compensation claims, with claims approved by the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries potentially covering medical costs and lost wages for ill workers.

The Department of Justice said it intends to file a lawsuit against Washington by the end of the week, unless the matter can be resolved without litigation.

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The Department of Justice is threatening to sue the state of Washington over a new state law that makes it easier for ill Hanford nuclear reservation workers to be awarded workers compensation.

The Department of Labor and Industries, working with the state Office of Attorney General, has notified the Department of Justice that it is willing to hear what the agency has to say, said Tim Church, spokesman for L&I.

“If the Department of Justice challenges this law in court I look forward to defending it,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson in a statement. “Hanford workers deserve to be compensated for the health issues caused by their dangerous work.”

Under Ferguson’s leadership, the Office of Attorney General has not lost a court case against the Department of Justice, making him confident the state law will be upheld, Ferguson said.

Workers and their families testified before the Legislature in 2018 that denial of Hanford worker compensation claims is routine.

Before the new law passed, claims for Hanford workers were denied at five times the rate of other claims to the state, according to Hanford Challenge, a worker advocacy group.

Since the new law took effect in June, 83 claims have been reviewed. Of those, 28 have been allowed and six denied, with the rest are pending, according to the Department of Labor and Industries.

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.

Hanford Challenge and the pipefitters union Local 598 sent a letter to Inslee on Monday, urging him to support the new law.

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Courtesy Department of Energy

It does not violate the Constitution, but rather is an “appropriate response to address the documented history of inadequate treatment of the hazards associated with the Hanford clean up and resulting worker compensation claims,” said the letter.

The new law provides a way “to address the practical problems faced by Hanford workers who are left with not only debilitating, but lethal, disease resulting from their employment,” the letter said.

Firefighters in Washington state also have eased requirements for workers compensation claims.

In both cases it may be difficult for workers to identify a chemical exposure that could cause an illness.

But business and insurance critics of the bill that was passed into law argued before legislators that the Hanford bill was much broader than the bill for firefighters.

They called the Hanford bill “breathtaking in its scope and inclusivity,” according to a legislative staff report.

“The bill does not take into account any nexus between conditions and any particular class of workers or exposure,” the staff report summary of opposition said.

The legislation, sponsored by retiring Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, shifts the burden of proof that an illness was caused by working at Hanford from the worker to the Department of Energy.

This 2011 multimedia presentation provides an overview of the Hanford Site—its history, cleanup activities, and a glimpse into the possibilities of future uses of the 586-square-mile government site in southeast Washington State.

The state Department of Labor and Industries, which rules on claims, now must presume that covered illnesses were the result of a chemical and radiological exposure at Hanford.

DOE may counter that with 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 eased compensation standard applies to any worker who spends as little as one eight-hour day at many areas of the nuclear reservation.

Covered areas on the 580-square-mile site include those where plutonium was produced during World War II or the Cold War for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

They also include areas where waste is stored until it can be treated for disposal and areas associated with environmental cleanup, such as the central Hanford landfill for low-level radioactive and hazardous chemical waste.

Current or former workers who want to file a compensation claim may get help with the state or other programs at no cost at the Hanford Workforce Engagement Center at 309 Bradley Blvd. Suite 120, in Richland. Call 509-376-4932.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews