The federal government has sued the state of Washington to overturn a new law that has paid state workers compensation benefits to more sick Hanford workers.
“This is a depraved action,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday at a news conference in Olympia.
“The people who fought communism shouldn’t have to fight their federal government to get the health care that they deserve,” he said.
The case filed in federal court on Monday says the state law approved this year violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution by imposing requirements on a federal agency, the Department of Energy.
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“It singles out DOE, its contractors, and the federally owned and operated portions of Hanford for a substantially more burdensome and costly workers’ compensation scheme,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit asks that the court declare the state law invalid and award the federal government costs of bringing the lawsuit.
Previously Hanford workers were required to show that a specific exposure, such as to hazardous chemicals or radiation, at the Hanford nuclear reservation caused an illness or injury.
Claims, which were decided by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, were rejected at a rate 52 percent higher than the state average, said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, who sponsored the legislative. Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, had previously sponsored a House bill.
“We have heard firsthand, through testimony before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, of the medical tribulations experienced by these Washingtonians,” she said. “People have gone bankrupt paying for cancer treatments, suffered from lung disease and lost tragic battles with dementia.”
The new law requires L&I to presume that a wide range of illnesses — including respiratory diseases, neurological diseases and many cancers — were caused by working at Hanford.
Workers who spend as little as eight hours at any of the many environmental cleanup areas at Hanford qualify for the eased compensation requirements, and there is no limit on how many years after they worked at Hanford that a claim may be filed.
The Hanford site was used to produce plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said that the “very unfortunate lawsuit” is based on an incorrect interpretation of the interaction between state and federal law.
Congress has given the state authority over workers compensation programs for employees of Hanford contractors, Ferguson said.
The lawsuit said the new law applies to most of the approximately 10,000 current workers at Hanford contractors. It also covers former and future workers.
“Shame on the Trump administration,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge.
Workers have finally received the justice they deserve after being exposed to radioactive and chemical materials, including plutonium and asbestos, that can damage their health even in very small quantities, he said.
The damage may not show up for a decade or more, he said.
“Hanford is allergic to accountability,” Carpenter said.
The federal government is worried about the precedent the new law sets as Hanford cleanup could continue for another 50 to 100 years, employing tens of thousands more workers, he said.
DOE is self insured at Hanford for workers compensation claims, making it liable for claims approved by the state agency.
Although L&I must presume that workers were made ill by exposures at Hanford, DOE may counter that with evidence that proves other causes for the disease, including smoking, lifestyle, hereditary factors, physical fitness or exposure to toxic substances at other jobs or at home.
“When you have people who work around these dangerous chemicals, it’s fair to put the burden on the federal government to prove that their problem was not associated with their work,” Inslee said.
Between when the new law took effect in June and the end of November, 83 claims have been reviewed. Of those, 28 have been allowed and six denied, with the rest pending a decision, according to the Department of Labor and Industries.
The eased Hanford compensation standard was modeled on one passed in Washington state in 1987 for firefighters who may be exposed to unknown hazardous chemicals when they respond to fires.
The firefighter coverage is more limited, requiring firefighters to work for at least 10 years and to file a claim no more than five years after their last day on the job.
Current or former Hanford workers who want to file a compensation claim, or to refile a claim that has been denied, 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.