SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) – Washington state officials are upset that the Biden administration is challenging a law to make 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 or not to accept the appeal from 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 “end this assault on Hanford workers.”
“It’s time to end this fight,” Ferguson said at a press conference at a Hanford union office in Pasco, Washington. “We want them to drop the appeal to the Supreme Court.”
“It is a matter of life and death” for the workers of Hanford, “said Nick Bumpaous, a union leader from Hanford, who called the call an” amoral effort “.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A law passed in 2018 by the Washington state legislature made it easier for sick workers at the Hanford nuclear reserve to qualify for state workers’ compensation benefits.
The law required the Washington State Department of Labor and Industry to make assumptions that radiological or chemical exposures to Hanford were the cause of any neurological or respiratory illnesses claimed by past or current Hanford employees.
President Donald Trump’s US Department of Justice challenged its constitutionality in 2019, arguing that federal jurisdiction over these matters prevails over state law. But they lost in federal court in eastern Washington and on appeal to the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals.
Now the Biden administration has returned to the fight.
“This lawsuit angered me when the Trump administration filed it – and it continues to anger me now that the Biden administration is suing it,” Ferguson said.
Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based watchdog group, said many chemical workers they are exposed to are known carcinogens.
Under state law, many types of cancer are presumed to be caused by work in 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 the waste from Hanford’s underground storage tanks.
Most other workers in Washington state must prove their illness was the direct result of a specific workplace incident in order to collect workers’ compensation.
Hanford, located near Richland, Washington, was created by the Manhattan Project during World War II to make 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, around 11,000 workers clean up radioactive and other hazardous chemical wastes resulting from the production of plutonium. Hanford contains the largest amount of radioactive waste in the country, and cleaning it up will take decades and cost billions of dollars.