Feds Continue Fight Against WA Law Protecting Hanford Workers

Liz Carey

Richland, WA (WorkersCompensation.com) – The federal government is continuing to fight a new Washington-state law that eases requirements for workers at that state’s nuclear weapons facilities to get state workers’ compensation.
According to court records, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a notice of appeal with the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals over a lawsuit it lost in U. S. District Court in Eastern Washington in June.

In 2018, Washington state legislators passed a law that significantly eased the requirements for workers who became ill at Hanford Nuclear Weapons Site, and their families. The Hanford Site produced plutonium for America’s nuclear weapons program. The site is currently being cleaned of radioactive and hazardous chemicals.

Under the new legislation, Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries would presume that exposure to radiation and hazardous chemicals was the cause of a host of neurological or respiratory illnesses, as well as many cancers and some heart conditions.

Hanford is considered one of the “most radioactive waste sites” in America covering 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater and including 53 million gallons of liquid waste, 25 million cubic feet of solid waste. The site was a facility for enriching plutonium during World War II and the Cold War, and is where more than 60,000 nuclear warheads were made. The facility closed in 1987.

When the law took place in June of 2018, the federal government sued saying that the new law attempted to regulate the federal government and “discriminate against it” because of the increased liability for workers’ compensation for the federal government.

In fact, the new legislation makes it very easy to qualify for workers’ compensation for those workers.

To qualify for the eased compensation rules, workers only need or needed to be employed at a work area at Hanford for a single eight-hour shift. The new legislation has no statute of limitations. According to the federal government, it would allow current and former Hanford employees, or their survivors, to file new claims, or to refile claims that had been denied.

As of July, only 131 claims had been filed. Of those, 60 had been approved, 20 have been rejected and the rest are pending. The federal government has paid out nearly $2 billion in reimbursement claims to Hanford employees or their families, and to workers of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, or their surviving family members, court records show.

Officials estimate the new legislation could make the federal government responsible for another nearly 100,000 claims.

This past June, Judge Stanley Bastian ruled that the law did not violate the Supremacy Clause of the U. S. Constitution.
“The court appropriately rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to undermine our state protections for Hanford workers,” Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said at the time, according to the Tri-City Herald. “Hanford workers do incredibly important work cleaning up the federal government’s nuclear program. If they get sick as a result, they deserve the ability to access the benefits they have earned.”

Previously, both state and federal officials had agreed to let the judge decide on the case without it going to trial, and it was thought that the case had come to a close. The federal government’s notice of appeal re-opens the proceedings.

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