Federal Judge Upholds Washington Law Protecting Hanford Employees

Photo shows Hanford workers in a toxic cloud

The U.S. government has lost a bid to dismantle a Washington state law that offers “presumptive” workers compensation benefits to injured workers at the now-defunct Hanford nuclear plant. The law was passed in 2018 after a two-year investigation by Seattle’s King 5 News revealed that workers at the site were routinely denied workers compensation benefits when they became ill.

What is Hanford?

Hanford is a 600-square-mile site in south-central Washington that was purchased by the U.S. Department of Energy during World War II. Part of the U.S. government’s Manhattan Project, it was a factory that produced plutonium for the manufacture of nuclear bombs. (The bomb that the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945, was made there.) The plant manufactured plutonium from 1944 through the late 1980’s, creating millions of gallons of radioactive waste mixed with largely unknown quantities of toxic chemicals. Today, it is known as the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere — “America’s Chernobyl,” according to NBC News.

Workers at Hanford have one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet — cleaning up the federal government’s mess. Run by the Department of Energy through its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, the $110 billion clean-up effort involves decontaminating 177 underground storage tanks containing an estimated 56 million gallons of chemicals and radioactive waste. Making the clean-up even more dangerous is the fact that these tanks, now decades old and filled with unstable chemicals, have begun to leak.

In 2016 alone, 61 Hanford workers were exposed to toxic fumes at the site. Many became ill with an assortment of brain and lung problems, including Parkinson’s-like symptoms, breathing difficulties and dementia. Yet their claims for workers compensation benefits have been routinely denied.

Unlike most employers in the state of Washington, Hanford’s workers compensation program is self-insured. Claims are approved or denied  by a government contractor employed by the DOE.

Hanford Is Dangerous, Says DOE

The Department of Energy concedes that Hanford is a dangerous place. Over the past several decades, it admits, multiple studies have shown the site contains levels of toxic contaminants that are far beyond those considered safe. As recently as 2014, researchers found toxins far in excess of occupational limits, and a “causal relationship” between exposure to the air at Hanford and damage to workers’ lungs and brains. Yet, according to a report from NBC News, workers are still told that the air at the old bomb-making factory is OK to breathe.. “We’re told daily that it’s safe,” said one man who still works at Hanford. “[That] there’s nothing to worry about.”

Washington State Steps In

To remedy the situation for injured Hanford workers, Washington enacted legislation in 2018 that created a “presumption of causation” in Hanford workers’ compensation claims. The law states that workers who fall ill after working at the site no longer have to prove their illness is related to their jobs. This means that, unless the DOE can produce “clear and convincing” evidence that an illness was caused by something else, toxins at the clean-up site are presumed to be the cause.

Not surprisingly, the Trump Administration was unhappy with Washington’s efforts to protect Hanford workers, so in December 2018 it sued the state. According to the legal filing, the Department of Justice claimed the law imposed “significant burdens on the Federal Government and its contractors without imposing them on other employers in the State, all in violation of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

Fortunately for Hanford workers, U.S. District Court Judge Stanley A. Bastion disagreed. In a decision rendered last week, Judge Bastion called the clean-up effort at the Hanford site “unprecedented in scale and complexity,” and cited federal law that “gives Washington powers that include the ability to legislate…to address specific risks to employees in specific industries.” Bastion also cited a similar law which mandates “presumptive causation” for firefighters who develop occupational illnesses such as cancer.

The decision is a big win for Hanford and the state, said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “Hanford workers do incredibly important work cleaning up the federal government’s nuclear (bomb-making) program, he said in a statement to K5 News. “If they get sick as a result, they deserve the ability to access the benefits they have earned.”

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