The U.S. Department of Justice should drop its legal challenge to a state law that helps Hanford workers receive timely and badly needed medical benefits for on-the-job injuries.
Going even further, the Biden administration should set a new course for the Department of Energy, which manages the former plutonium factory on the banks of the Columbia River.
DOE is the client in this litigation, and the agency has a long track record of throwing up road blocks to those injured in some of the most dangerous work imaginable.
“They’re saying workers at Hanford are a commodity and expendable,” said Bertola Bugarin, whose husband, 70-year-old Abe Garza, is critically ill after several exposures to toxic vapors at work.
The case revolves around worker compensation claims.
In June, the state Department of Commerce published a survey of more than 1,200 Hanford workers about their possible exposure to toxic vapors.
More than 57% of all current and former workers reported coming into contact with poisonous chemicals. More than 32% of respondents indicated long-term exposure.
Treating health effects for Hanford workers is all the more complex because illnesses can take years to manifest.
As is standard procedure, injured Hanford workers first file a workers comp claim with their employer, DOE. That’s where the stonewalling begins.
A 2018 DOE Inspector General report determined the agency “does not have effective processes, procedures, and controls over the Workers’ Compensation Program at the Hanford site.”
That same year, state legislators stepped in and made it easier for Hanford workers to seek compensation for illnesses and injuries. The new law was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in March of 2018 and took affect five months later.
In December 2018, DOJ sued Washington state, seeking to declare the state law unconstitutional. A U.S. District Court ruled in the state’s favor in 2019. DOJ appealed and lost the next year in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
On Sept. 8, DOJ filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At a Pasco news conference last week, a visibly angry state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, said: “The Biden administration should withdraw their appeal immediately.”
The White House should do more than that.
DOE Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm, former governor of Michigan, took over the agency earlier this year. She should recognize DOE’s terrible history of fighting medical bills and intervene to ensure cooperation with workers.
Resolving workers comp claims at Hanford and other toxic sites around the country is expensive. But it is clearly the right thing to do, and that should be the federal government’s bottom line.