Federal lawsuit to challenge the state law could come as early as Friday
The U.S. Justice Department is threatening to sue Washington state to block legislation signed into law this year by Gov. Jay Inslee to help Hanford workers win more compensation claims for illnesses.
A Justice Department official, in a letter to Inslee, alleges the law violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it “purports to directly regulate” the federal government and discriminates against it and its contractors. The letter warns of legal action if a settlement cannot be reached by Friday.
The letter from James Gilligan, the Justice Department’s acting director of the civil division, represents a Trump administration attack on a state law passed last spring to help Hanford workers who fell sick after participating in the federal Energy Department’s massive cleanup of the nuclear site.
The Department of Energy is a self-insured employer and pays out claims. The state Department of Labor & Industries makes the final determination on any cases that are appealed by Hanford workers.
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Under the law passed this year, some cancers and other illnesses are assumed to be due to chemical or radiological exposures at Hanford, unless that presumption can be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.
Spokespersons for Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson said that the state officials have been willing to discuss the state law with Justice Department official. But they are not willing to suspend enforcement.
A spokesperson for the Justice Department declined to comment on Gilligan’s letter.
If there is a federal challenge to the state law, Ferguson, in a statement to The Seattle Times, said he would “look forward to defending it. Hanford workers deserve to be compensated for the health issues caused by their dangerous work.”
His spokesman also noted that the Justice Department did not relay any concerns to the Attorney General’s office before the bill was passed by the Legislature
Other organizations have responded to the Justice Department criticism of the law.
Hanford Challenge, a watchdog group, and the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters, Local Union 598, both backed passage of the law.
In a letter sent this week to Inslee, their leaders called the law “an appropriate response to address the documented history of inadequate treatment of the hazards associated with the Hanford cleanup.” The letter was signed by Tom Carpenter, Hanford Challenge’s executive director and Randall Walli, business manager of Local Union 598.
The Hanford site near Richland was born in the secrecy of the World War II Manhattan project to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, and left behind a complex mix of chemical and radioactive wastes.
The legislation signed into law in March by Inslee was propelled through the Legislature by the concerns of sick Hanford workers frustrated by denials of their compensation claims from the state Labor & Industries.
“We have had the biggest battle of our life,” said Melinda Rouse on March 22, 2017, in state Senate testimony on behalf of her husband, Lawrence Rouse, who worked for more than 20 years at Hanford and was diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy.
The legislation has drawn opposition from the Washington Self-Insurers Association and the Association of Washington Business, with critics arguing that it was “breathtaking in its scope and inclusivity” and would set a bad precedent, according to a summary of testimony included in a state House of Representatives report.
Since the legislation has passed, 83 claims have been reviewed under the law. Of those, 28 have been allowed, six have been denied and 49 are still pending, according to Tim Church, a spokesman for the state Labor & Industries.