A group of cleanup workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation who were provided faulty respirators and potentially exposed to harmful vapors would gain a pathway to federal benefits if they become sick under proposed legislation introduced Wednesday by two members of Washington’s delegation in Congress.
Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Adam Smith, both Democrats, sponsored companion legislation in the House and Senate, dubbed “The Toxic Exposure Safety Act of 2020.” The proposed legislation aims to expand eligibility for federal benefits to make it easier for cleanup workers, at Hanford and other Department of Energy sites, to gain benefits after being exposed to chemical toxics during decontamination projects at sites fouled during the production of nuclear weapons.
“This legislation takes the right steps to … ensure Hanford workers and those at other nuclear clean-up sites can obtain the full benefits they’re entitled to when they’ve contracted illnesses as a result of workplace exposure,” Murray said.
The legislation was spurred by a Seattle Times investigation that revealed 560 workers conducting cleanup of Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant between 2012 and October 2016 were supplied with respirators that had undergone after-market alterations that caused them to leak, according to a joint news release from Murray and Smith. More than 400 of the workers who’d moved on from their employment with cleanup contractor CH2M Hill by the time the leaks were discovered were never notified about the possible exposures. Several of them have developed chronic illnesses ranging from seizure disorders to compromised breathing.
Hanford workers who were provided the faulty respirators have struggled to get approved for benefits, despite state and federal programs designed to assist sickened nuclear workers. Bill Evans, 45, was forced into early retirement from the cleanup of the Plutonium Finishing Plant when he began experiencing violent seizures, beginning in 2016. He is pursuing benefits from the state and the federal government. His state claim has been approved, but it’s being held up by appeals from the U.S. Department of Energy and Evans’ former employer, CH2M Hill.
Evans’ federal claim has been denied, but he’s appealing it. His claim, under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act, has foundered because seizure disorders like his aren’t specifically identified as a condition that qualifies a cleanup worker for benefits, unless it can be definitively traced back to a specific toxic agent present at the site. The legislation introduced by Murray and Smith would support research that more clearly defines the relationships between exposure to specific chemicals and the illnesses they can cause by proposing $15 million in research over the next five years.
“This bill would help spur research necessary to understand the impacts of exposure to toxic substances on workers’ health and ultimately enable workers to more easily receive the compensation they deserve for illnesses contracted on the job,” Smith said.
The research results would help define which employees are eligible for benefits under the federal program based on the known hazards in a particular area and workers’ documented exposures there. Some epidemiologists believe the present list used to correlate illnesses to toxic exposures at Department of Energy sites is insufficient and excludes workers who ought to be eligible, including those affected by the leaky respirators at Hanford, Murray’s staff said in an emailed statement.
A parallel federal benefits program available to Department of Energy employees and employees of contractors at nuclear sites who have documented radiation exposures relies on a robust matrix of sites, incidents, hazards and illnesses to determine claim eligibility. However, federal law provides little remedy to workers at nuclear sites who suffer toxic exposures, according to a joint news release from Murray and Smith. The bill they sponsored seeks to establish a more comprehensive system for linking exposure to chemical hazards to employee illnesses.
Labor groups including the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, Central Washington Building and Construction Trades and the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union 598 have expressed support for the legislation.
Evans, whose once financially comfortable life has been cast into turmoil by his illness, said he welcomes the proposal and wishes Congress had a window into his experience when it takes action on the bill.
“I’d tell them exactly what’s happened to my family,” he said. “I’m about to lose the house. I’ve been put in a position where I can’t take care of my family anymore. I’ll never be able to work again. I’ll never be able to drive again. My family has to take care of me, and I still haven’t gotten benefits. It should not be this hard.”