Supreme Court overrules 2018 Hanford workers’ comp law

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the new protections apply to everyone, including state employees, working at the Hanford site.

RICHLAND, Wash. — The United States Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a 2018 Washington state law aimed at helping ailing Hanford workers receive benefits and medical care under the “Supremacy Clause” is unconstitutional.

In a unanimous decision, the court overturned the state’s 2018 law on the grounds that it “formally discriminates against the federal government and its contractors.” The Trump administration filed a lawsuit challenging the law in December 2018, arguing it violated “interstate immunity.”

However, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement that an “updated and improved” law passed by the state Legislature during the 2022 session remains in effect “to ensure that workers at radioactive Waste like Hanford continues to receive compensation for health problems they face because of their work.”

Ferguson said the safeguards apply to everyone, including state employees, working at the Hanford site.

“Because lawmakers have already addressed the issues raised by the federal government, this ruling has little practical impact in Washington,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Hanford workers and everyone else working with hazardous radioactive waste remain protected. The federal government has not challenged this new law. If this is the case, we will again defend these protections up to the Supreme Court if necessary. As long as I am Attorney General, I will fight for Hanford workers.”

The Biden administration has not challenged the new law or indicated that it intends to do so, Ferguson said.

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In 2018, the state legislature passed House Bill 1723, which gave Hanford workers with certain medical conditions the presumption that they became ill on the job because of exposure to toxins such as heavy metals, chemical fumes, and radioactive isotopes. This is a similar guess given to Washington state firefighters who routinely come into contact with hazards like smoke and hazardous chemicals associated with building and auto fires

Before the 2018 Act, the KING 5 Investigators showed For three decades, Hanford workers were systematically cheated out of benefits. Hanford’s self-insurance program used tactics such as doctor purchases and submission of incomplete medical information to unfairly deny claims. The process left the workers sick, broke and unable to work.

Unlike most other employers in the state, the Department of Energy (DOE), which owns Hanford, operates a self-insured worker’s compensation program, meaning the federal agencies pay for claims.

RELATED: Report: Over 57% of Hanford workers are at risk

Many Hanford workers suffered from serious illnesses that doctors said were caused by toxic fumes, including occupational asthma, COPD, cancer, organ damage and occupational dementia. But in each of their cases, their workers’ compensation claims have been repeatedly denied.

“The workers need this law. You deserve this law. They have worked and paid with their lives and injuries to clean up one of the world’s most toxic sites [in the world] and I don’t understand [the challenge to it]said Bertola Bugarin in September 2021. Her husband, 70-year-old Abe Garza, is critically ill after multiple exposures to toxic fumes in Hanford. One of Garza’s most serious health conditions is toxic encephalopathy, also known as occupational dementia. “[The Biden administration is] to say that workers at Hanford are a commodity and expendable.”

Shortly after Washington lawmakers passed the Hanford Act, the Justice Department under the Trump administration appealed the law. Federal prosecutors argued the law was unconstitutional because states do not have the authority to regulate federal operations or property. In 1936, however, Congress gave states broad powers to apply their workers’ compensation laws to federal projects.

The DOJ lost this case in 2019 and lost again to appeal to the Ninth Circuit in August 2020 before taking her to the Supreme Court.

A bipartisan group of 60 Washington state lawmakers sent a letter of protest to President Biden in October 2021, urging him to drop a Trump-era legal challenge to a state law aimed at helping ailing Hanford workers receive benefits and medical care.

Hanford, near Richland in south-central Washington state, was founded by the Manhattan Project during World War II and produced the plutonium for much of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Hanford plutonium was used in the second atomic bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man,” dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 at the end of World War II.

RELATED: What is Hanford?

Thereafter, production continued to support the country’s stockpiling of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

When plutonium production ended in 1987, Hanford was the most contaminated site in the entire western hemisphere. Approximately one million gallons of nuclear waste has already exited the monocoque tanks and is slowly making its way to the Columbia River. Some radiation was found in the Pacific Ocean near the mouth of the Columbia River.

Due to the deterioration of the single hulls, much of the tank farm work is currently focused on transferring the waste from these tanks to the more stable double hulls.

As double-walled tanks gradually break down, the lack of space for waste is a serious problem. No new tanks have been built since the 1970s, despite years of expert advice that new tanks must be built to hold the waste until the Vit plant is operational.

RELATED: Nuclear waste tank at Hanford site may be leaking

Hanford remains the largest environmental cleanup effort in US history and is funded at approximately $2 billion per year. There are budget documents released by the government showing the cleanup that lasted into the 2080s and cost taxpayers $100 billion or more.

Hanford’s main entrance, located on the outskirts of Richland, is 200 miles from Seattle.

The site is approximately 586 square miles. Supreme Court overrules 2018 Hanford workers’ comp law

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