A Hanford cleanup contractor’s mistreatment of workers who were issued faulty equipment highlights multiple problems that regulators should address. Safety lapses at the southeast Washington nuclear site carry potential consequences too dire to treat lightly.
As The Seattle Times’ Patrick Malone and Hal Bernton reported, longtime contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Company badly failed to handle a crisis its own mistakes caused. The company modified a respirator that site workers relied on to breathe clean air, ostensibly adding shock protection to the system. But the change left the mechanism dangerously unsealed for work in highly contaminated areas.
The error was bad enough — an estimated 560 workers faced contamination danger from using unsafe respirators between 2012 and 2016. But what happened next worsened the situation: CH2M Hill notified only the approximately 150 workers who were still on-site about the problem.
Government regulators should thoroughly investigate this failure to reach out to more than 400 former employees. It potentially carries immense medical and liability repercussions and must be thoroughly investigated, and share findings publicly.
But this isn’t the only failing that injured Hanford workers deserve help with.
As the story reported, cleanup workers who fall ill during — or after — their time at the site must navigate complex bureaucracy to receive government aid. A humane 2018 reform of Washington worker compensation law to benefit Hanford site workers has not been matched by a change in federal policy. Under the change, the state injury-claim system presumes that Hanford workers who discover cancer or other potentially radiation-linked illnesses got it because of on-site exposure. The federal Department of Energy, however, resists paying Washington-approved claims without further medical evidence.
Now injured workers suffer while the federal attorneys prolong a court challenge of the 2018 law. Last year, U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian rightly rejected the federal claim that Washington couldn’t approve injury filings from the 560-square-mile Hanford site. Federal law gives the state exactly this ability, as Bastian held, and federal lawyers are wasting valuable time and money arguing otherwise at the appellate level.
A multitude of safety problems have beset the Hanford site during the long nuclear cleanup, which began in 1989. Current challenges obstructing the path to a safe, fully cleaned site include the Energy Department’s proposals to drag out cleanup of deeply contaminated areas for another decade and draw down project funding. The work is further complicated by the coronavirus outbreak, which has forced thousands of Hanford workers to go home.
Energy Department officials should stop adding to the complications the cleanup faces and walk away from the challenge to Washington law. The injured workers need to be fairly compensated, and the company that risked their health without notifying them must be fully investigated.