OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced recently that a panel of judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously ruled that Washington has a right to create laws giving workers at Hanford Nuclear Reservation easier access to the benefits they deserve if they become ill because of their work at Hanford.
In Dec. 2018, the Trump Administration sued Washington over the state’s law protecting sick Hanford workers. A panel of three judges, Richard Clifton, James Donato and Milan Smith, unanimously struck down the Trump Administration’s claims that a 2018 Washington state law protecting Hanford workers is unlawful. The panel ruled that Congress has given authority to the states to provide workers’ compensation benefits to injured contractors on federal lands. Judge Milan Smith, appointed by George W. Bush, wrote the opinion for the panel.
“There’s a word for President Trump and his Department of Justice’s attempt to rip away our state law helping Hanford workers access health care they earned – cruel,” Ferguson said. “Hanford workers are cleaning up one of the most contaminated sites on the planet, and they deserve these protections.”
Business Manager Randy Walli and Government Affairs Director Nickolas Bumpaous offered the following joint statement on behalf of UA Local 598:
“UA Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 598 strives every day to represent not just the best interest of our members but of all workers across the State of Washington. The fact remains that our Nation relies on skilled and dedicated working families to serve our Country’s needs and accomplish our most important goals. There is no more apparent example of this dedication than the decades of operation and remediation performed by Washingtonians at the Hanford Site. In 2017 the State of Washington took action to protect sick Hanford workers and ensure they receive the deserved care and benefits. The Trump administration decided that men and women who sought support and relief from the illnesses they received in service to our Country was the real issue, making it their new priority to fight against those families in an attempt to claw back those hard fought protections. Today’s judgment upholding HB 1723 as the law of the land is a testament to the State of Washington’s dedication to working families and the ability of our Attorney General to uphold our standards, our laws and our obligations.”
In 2018, in an overwhelming, bipartisan vote, the Washington State Legislature passed legislation to make it easier for Hanford workers to access workers’ compensation benefits when they develop certain illnesses associated with their work at Hanford. Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland and Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, sponsored this bipartisan legislation, with key support from Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle and Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett.
Under this law, when a worker who had least one shift at Hanford develops one of a wide range of illnesses known to be linked to exposure to volatile chemical gases at Hanford, there is an assumption that he or she became ill because of an exposure at work. These illnesses include chronic beryllium, respiratory diseases and neurological problems.
Before this bill was passed, Hanford workers suffering from an illness related to their job had to prove that whatever they had wasn’t caused by something else in their lives. For many workers, this turned into a long, drawn-out fight — some workers passed away before they could receive benefits for illnesses related to their work at Hanford.
Shortly after the 2018 Hanford worker protection bill was passed, the Trump Administration filed a lawsuit against it. The government argued that the law violates “intergovernmental immunity,” a legal doctrine that prevents states from regulating federal operations or property. However, in 1937 — more than eight decades ago — Congress gave states broad authority to apply their workers’ compensation laws to federal projects.
In June 2019, Judge Stanley A. Bastian for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington granted Washington’s motion for summary judgment. In that order, Judge Bastian ruled that Congress authorized Washington to pass laws providing special protections for Hanford workers and therefore did not violate intergovernmental immunity. The opinion from the Ninth Circuit affirmed that ruling, agreeing that Washington had the authority to apply its workers’ compensation laws to Hanford workers.
Solicitor General Noah Purcell argued the case for Washington. Senior Counsel Anastasia Sandstrom led the case for Washington.
Hanford worker safety
For more than 40 years, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation played a critical role in the nation’s military weapons program, producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. This process generated massive quantities of waste, much of which was buried on-site or, in the case of liquids, discharged directly to the ground, risking contamination of the groundwater that flows into the Columbia River. Hanford holds more high-level radioactive waste than all other U.S. sites combined.
Some 1,500 different volatile chemical gases — many of which are highly toxic and known carcinogens — have been found in the Hanford tanks. Exposure to these chemicals is known to cause numerous harmful health impacts including lung disease, central nervous system suppression, nerve damage, and cancers of the liver, lung, blood and other organs.
Ferguson filed a separate lawsuit in 2015 against the federal government alleging that hazardous tank vapors at Hanford pose a serious risk to workers at the site. This worker safety case led to a victory in 2018, when the federal government signed a legally-binding agreement to conduct testing and, if successful, begin implementing a new system to treat or capture these hazardous tank vapors at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation within the next three years.
To learn more about the Attorney General’s long-running efforts to hold the federal government accountable for cleanup at Hanford, visit https://www.atg.wa.gov/hanford.