State lawmakers consider more help for sick Hanford workers, while feds push back

Hanford Workforce Engagement Center opening

DOE program manager Gail Splett tells about the opening of the Hanford Workforce Engagement Center in Richland. The facility is for current and former Hanford workers and their families who have occupational health questions.
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DOE program manager Gail Splett tells about the opening of the Hanford Workforce Engagement Center in Richland. The facility is for current and former Hanford workers and their families who have occupational health questions.

Even as the federal government sues to stop a new Washington state law that helps Hanford workers, some state lawmakers are working to change the new law to allow even more ill workers to be compensated.

Workers should not have to wait too long for resolution of the lawsuit.

The federal government and the defendant in the lawsuit, the state of Washington, have told a federal judge that it likely can be resolved without going to trial.

A judge’s ruling in the case is possible this spring.

The federal government sued the state in December to overturn a new law that is paying state worker compensation benefits to more sick Hanford site workers.

Before the Legislature eased requirements in 2018 for approving Hanford compensation claims, Hanford workers were required to show that a specific exposure, such as to hazardous chemicals or radiation, at the nuclear reservation caused an illness or injury.

tank farm no respirator.JPG
Hanford workers now are required to wear supplied air respirators for most work in the site’s tank farms, but that has not always been the case. Courtesy Department of Energy

The new law removes the burden of proof from workers or their survivors, unlike requirements for most other workers in the state.

The new law requires the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries to presume that a wide range of sicknesses — 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 now 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.

DOE can counter claims that Hanford exposures are to blame with evidence of other causes of worker illness, such as smoking, lifestyle or hereditary factors.

Feds say law is unconstitutional

Hanford is contaminated from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

In the first six months since the law took effect, 92 worker compensation claims have been received, with 35 approved, eight denied and the remainder pending.

The federal government says the law violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution by imposing requirements on a federal agency, the Department of Energy.

“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.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, right, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson support a state law that took effect in June 2018 to help more ill Hanford workers get their compensation claims approved. Ted S. Warren AP

The law applies to not only the approximately 10,000 current workers at Hanford contractors and subcontractors, but also covers workers there for the past seven decades and workers there as environmental cleanup continues for decades to come.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the state law invalid and reimburse the federal government the costs of bringing the lawsuit.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said that the federal government’s interpretation of the interaction between state and federal law is incorrect and that the state has authority over workers compensation programs for employees of Hanford contractors.

U.S. Judge Stanley Bastian agreed to allow the two sides to provide written arguments by a May for him to make a decision in the case.

State lawmakers consider change

Meanwhile, the Washington state House of Representatives has voted 67-29 to amend the law the Legislature approved last year.

The bill as passed last year says workers can claim compensation for cancer if a medical exam when they started work at Hanford showed no evidence of cancer.

However, some workers were not given the medical exam.

The amendment, which was requested by Ferguson, waives the proof of no cancer at the start of employment if the qualifying medical exam was not given.

The amendment next must be approved by the Senate.

Before the state law was passed in 2018, Hanford compensation claims were denied by the state at a higher rate than for other workers, argued Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, who sponsored the legislation.

The Hanford Workforce Engagement Center helps current and former Hanford workers and their families understand resources available for medical screening and compensation and medical care for ill workers. Courtesy Department of Energy

“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 form lung disease and lost tragic battles with dementia.”

Showing exactly what substance a worker was exposed to can be difficult, particularly for chemical vapors associated with tank waste. The waste in the storage tanks include at least 1,200 chemicals that may be released in vapors.

“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,” said Gov. Jay Inslee when the lawsuit was filed.

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.

The center can be reached at 509-376-4932.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.