KENNEWICK — Washington legislators who passed a bill to make it easier for ill Hanford site workers to qualify for state workers’ compensation are protesting the Biden administration’s challenge to the new law.
Some 66 state legislators, including Democrats and Republicans and representatives and senators, signed a letter objecting to a challenge of the law filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We write to request that you reconsider the United States Department of Justice’s attempts to block an overwhelmingly bipartisan state law to provide industrial insurance coverage to workers made sick on the Hanford federal nuclear site during its multiyear clean-up project,” said the letter sent Wednesday to the president.
The Trump administration had challenged the law passed in 2018, with most recently a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding it. Judge Milan Smith, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, wrote the opinion for the panel, the letter pointed out.
“It is most distressing that the Biden administration’s Department of Justice has ignored those previous rulings and is now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule our state’s decision to protect the workers made ill on their jobs at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state,” the letter said.
Among those signing the letter were state Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, and state Rep. Mark Klicker, R-Walla Walla. They were the only officials from Legislative Districts 8, 9 and 16, each of which have Benton or Franklin county voters, to sign the letter.
When the appeal was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court last month, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, was surprised and angered by the move.
He could not believe that Biden, as a longtime champion of American workers, had been consulted on the appeal, he said.
“President Biden must agree that Hanford workers should be able to access the benefits they earned, including workers’ compensation,” he said.
Gov. Jay Inslee, also a Democrat, also has denounced the latest appeal.
“The decision by the Department of Justice to pursue this case in the U.S. Supreme Court is a mistake that threatens to compound the suffering of Hanford workers,” he said in a statement.
Easing burden of proof
The Washington law at issue makes it easier for ill Hanford workers to qualify for state workers’ compensation benefits.
It requires the Washington Department of Labor & Industries to presume that radiological or chemical exposures at the Hanford nuclear reservation caused any neurological diseases or respiratory illnesses claimed by past or current employees of Hanford contractors.
Many types of cancer also are presumed to be caused by working at Hanford, plus some limited heart problems, under the new law.
Workers no longer have to prove that not only that their illness was not caused by something else in their lives, but that an exposure to a specific chemical caused their illness. Some 1,500 different volatile gases have been found in waste in Hanford’s underground tanks.
Most other workers in Washington bear the burden of proof to show that their injury or illness was a direct result of a specific workplace incident in order for them to be paid workers’ comp.
The Department of Justice has argued that the description of covered illnesses in the state’s Hanford law is so vague that it could cover hundreds of commonly occurring illnesses, including asthma, chronic bronchitis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes.
The 580-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation is contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemical waste from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. About $2.5 billion is being spent annually on environmental cleanup there.