State fights back against ‘cruel legal challenge’ to Hanford worker protections in Supreme Court

Apr 21, 2022, 10:06 AM
(Photo by Jeff T. Green/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeff T. Green/Getty Images)

Team members from the Washington Attorney General’s Office attended a Supreme Court hearing to defend a law that protects worker’s compensation for those exposed to radioactive waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

“This case is about a 2018 Washington State law,” former State Attorney General Rob McKenna told Dave Ross on KIRO Newsradio. “That requires the Department of Labor and Industries to presume that radiological and chemical exposures at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation caused any neurological diseases or respiratory illnesses that are claimed by past or current employees of Hanford contractors.”

Signs of another nuclear waste storage tank leaking at Hanford

Washington Deputy Solicitor General Tera Heintz delivered an oral argument before the Supreme Court, according to U.S. Supreme Court transcripts.

“I’m proud of my legal team for their efforts today,” Ferguson said. “To be blunt, if the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was located outside Washington, D.C., the federal government would not be continuing this cruel legal challenge. As long as I am Attorney General, my office will defend Hanford workers’ ability to access the benefits they earned.”

Washington was home to the development of weapon-grade plutonium for the Manhattan Project, the WWII think tank that is credited with the creation of the nuclear bomb. Seventy-six years after the project’s conclusion in August 1945, Washington is still dealing with the consequences of operating alongside massive amounts of dangerous material. The Hanford Reservation along the Columbia River is 640 square miles of decommissioned nuclear production, riddled with toxic, radioactive material.

There are employees taking care of the area every day, exposing themselves to the toxic climate within the reservation.

“Many types of cancer are presumed to be caused working at Hanford,” said McKenna. “Now, this is significant because normally, when you put in a worker’s comp claim, you have to prove that your illness wasn’t caused by something else in your life. And you had to prove that you were exposed to a specific chemical that caused your illness.”

According to McKenna, Hanford workers have had difficulty proving their illnesses were caused by Hanford specifically as there are approximately 1,500 different volatile toxic gases currently in the waste.

“The workers have been arguing for years that they shouldn’t have to prove exactly which chemical caused their illness, and they shouldn’t have to prove that it wasn’t something else in their life,” McKenna continued. “They’re saying this is the most toxic worksite in the country, and they think that the burden of proof is unfair to them.”

While Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries agreed to this plea with legislation in support of the Hanford workers, the compensation comes from the Federal Department of Energy.

“The federal government is saying, this is too much. You’re imposing a standard that we have to pay for that doesn’t apply to any other workers in Washington state,” said McKenna. “And you’re not allowed to do that because of a doctrine called Intergovernmental Immunity, which prevents states from regulating federal operations of property.”

Hanford begins 1st large-scale treatment of nuke tank wastes

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson called the federal government’s appeal of the 2018 legislation a “cruel legal challenge” after the Supreme Court hearing was held.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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State fights back against ‘cruel legal challenge’ to Hanford worker protections in Supreme Court