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Washington AG says he'll fight the feds over law to help sick Hanford workers

caption: Hanford's Plutonium Finishing Plant, which exposed 42 workers to radioactive particles.
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Hanford's Plutonium Finishing Plant, which exposed 42 workers to radioactive particles.
Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy

Washington State is ready to face off with the federal government over compensation for sick workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The Trump administration filed a lawsuit this week attempting to block a Washington law passed earlier this year that aims to help sick Hanford nuclear cleanup workers obtain workers' compensation.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Tuesday he’s confident the state will win.

“There have been reports, year after year, focused on the unique dangers at Hanford," Ferguson said. "The federal government ignored its own experts, and ignored those sick workers."

The law, HB 1723, creates a presumption for Hanford workers that some diseases, including respiratory disease or some cancers, are occupational diseases, unless contradicted by "clear and convincing evidence." That new presumption allows Hanford workers who suffer from these conditions to win workers' compensation.

Firefighters are already subject to a similar presumption for some illnesses, including respiratory disease.

But the federal government's lawsuit, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, claims that HB 1723 discriminates against the federal government and attempts to regulate it, violating the Supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Rep. Larry Haler (R-Richland), a former Hanford employee, sponsored the first version of the bill. Gov. Jay Inslee signed HB 1723 into law earlier this year after the state House of Representatives approved it, 74-21.

Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), another longtime advocate for Hanford workers and a supporter of the law, said that it's been well documented that Hanford workers have been exposed to beryllium, which leads to death.

Fighting this law, Pollet said, and delaying the ability for sick workers to obtain medical care, causes "incredible suffering."

The Department of Energy is self-insured for state workers' compensation at Hanford and contracts with a third party to run the program.

According to the lawsuit, the Department of Energy pays out workers' compensation to the majority of federal contractor employees at Hanford. Washington state's Department of Labor and Industries, however, makes the final ruling on appealed workers' compensation cases.

A total of 42 workers have tested positive for radioactive contamination after radioactive particles spread during demolition work on the Hanford site's Plutonium Finishing Plant last December.

This story has been updated with comments from Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Rep. Gerry Pollet.

Patricia Murphy contributed reporting.

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