SPOKANE — Washington state officials are upset that the Biden administration is challenging a law making it easier to compensate workers who fall ill at a former nuclear weapons production site.
The Supreme Court will likely decide in the coming weeks whether to accept the appeal by the US Department of Justice. If the high court dismisses the case, state law will stand.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Thursday called on the Biden administration to “stop this assault on Hanford workers.”
“It’s time to end this fight,” Ferguson said at a news conference at a Hanford union office in Pasco. “We want them to drop the appeal to the Supreme Court.”
“This is a matter of life and death” for Hanford workers,” said Nick Bumpaous, a Hanford union leader, who called the call an “unemoral undertaking”.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A 2018 law passed by the Washington state legislature made it easier for sick workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation to qualify for state workers’ compensation benefits.
The law required the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries to presume that radiological or chemical exposures at Hanford were the cause of any neurological or respiratory disease reported by past or current Hanford employees.
The US Department of Justice under President Donald Trump challenged its constitutionality in 2019, on the grounds that federal jurisdiction over such matters overrides state law. But they lost in federal court in eastern Washington and on appeal to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.
Now the Biden administration is back in the fight.
“This lawsuit angered me when the Trump administration filed it — and it continues to anger me now that the Biden administration is pursuing it,” Ferguson said.
Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based watchdog group, said many chemicals workers are exposed to are known carcinogens.
Under state law, many types of cancer are presumed to be caused by working at Hanford.
Workers no longer have to prove that their illness was not caused by something else in their life or that exposure to a specific chemical caused their illness. About 1,500 different volatile gases were found in waste from Hanford’s underground storage tanks.
Most other workers in Washington State must prove that their illness was the direct result of a specific workplace incident in order to receive workers’ compensation.
Hanford, located near Richland, Washington, was created by the Manhattan Project during World War II to manufacture the plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The site continued to produce most of the plutonium for the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal during the Cold War.
Currently, about 11,000 workers clean up radioactive and other hazardous chemical waste left over from plutonium production. Hanford contains the largest amount of radioactive waste in the country, and cleaning it up will take decades and cost billions of dollars.