Feds double down on ill Hanford workers’ court ruling. They will appeal

The federal government is appealing a court ruling that upheld a new Washington state law that significantly eases requirements for ill Hanford workers to get state workers’ compensation.

The Department of Justice recently filed a notice of appeal with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In June, Judge Stanley Bastian ruled in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington that the state law that took effect in June 2018 did not violate the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, as the federal government claimed.

The Department of Justice had filed suit against the state claiming that the new law attempted to regulate the federal government and discriminated against it with heightened liability for workers’ compensation.

The state successfully argued that eased rules were appropriate for ill Hanford workers, given their risk of exposure to harmful compounds and poor chemical testing records kept by contractors at the Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland.

The new law has no statute of limitations and the federal government estimates that it allows about 100,000 current and former Hanford employees or their survivors to file claims.

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Hanford workers, shown preparing to remove a highly radioactive spill beneath the 324 Building, face risks from radioactive and hazardous chemicals, plus industrial hazards. Courtesy Department of Energy

The Hanford Site produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program through the Cold War, and contractor employees now are working on environmental cleanup of areas extensively contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemicals.

Hanford workers’ comp

The new law requires the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries to presume that radiological or chemical exposures at Hanford caused any cases of neurological diseases or respiratory illnesses for which past or current contractor employees file claims.

Many types of cancer also are presumed to be caused by working at Hanford, plus some limited heart problems.

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Courtesy Department of Energy

To qualify for the eased compensation rules, workers only need to be employed at a work area at Hanford for a single eight-hour shift.

Most other workers in the state bear the burden of proof to show that their injury or illness was a direct result of a specific workplace incident to receive workers’ comp.

The Washington state Department of Labor and Industries decides whether to approve or deny claims. The Department of Energy pays the cost of approved claims because it is self-insured.

It argued that the new law would increase its costs for the environmental cleanup of Hanford.

The list of covered illnesses is so loosely defined that it could cover hundreds of common illnesses, including asthma, chronic bronchitis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and strokes, the federal government argued.

Judge: State may set special Hanford rules

U.S. Judge Stanley Bastian found that the new law does not violate the Supremacy Clause because Congress has authorized several states to regulate workers’ compensation on federal land to the same extent that they can regulate non-federal land.

The state of Washington can create workers’ compensation laws to address particular risks to employees in the state, it said.

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Workers at the Hanford Site are cleaning up radioactive and hazardous chemical waste left from the past production of plutonium. Tri-City Herald File

“The court appropriately rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to undermine our state protections for Hanford workers,” said state Attorney General Bob Ferguson when Bastian ruled.

“Hanford workers do incredibly important work cleaning up the federal government’s nuclear program,” he said. “If they get sick as a result, they deserve the ability to access the benefits they have earned.”

As of the latest count in mid May, about 130 claims had been filed under the new law, with 60 allowed and 20 rejected by the Department of Labor and Industries. The rest were pending.

Hanford workers and their survivors also may apply for a federal compensation program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor.

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

It has paid out almost $2 billion in compensation and medical care reimbursement to Hanford and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory workers or their families.

Workers can learn more about state and federal compensation programs and how to apply for them 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.