U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state reintroduced legislation on Thursday to make it easier for workers sickened by exposure to toxins at Hanford and other sites nationwide that bear the environmental legacy of the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
Smith and Murray were joined by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, chair of the Senate energy committee, providing fresh hope for a proposal that Congress failed to act on last year.
The legislation was inspired by a Seattle Times investigation in March 2020 that chronicled the health and economic plight of Bill Evans Jr., 46, who was forced into early retirement from the Hanford cleanup project when he was inexplicably stricken with debilitating seizures.
The Times’ investigation revealed that Evans had been among more than 560 Hanford workers between 2012 and October 2016 assigned to demolish and decontaminate the Plutonium Finishing Plant, a highly contaminated building where plutonium was processed for decades to supply the spark plug for nuclear warheads.
The workers’ respirators may have leaked, but until The Times’ reporting, Hanford contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Company had informed only about 150 of the workers that they may have been subjected to hazardous exposures by the faulty equipment.
Others besides Evans have reported health problems and worried that their illnesses may be the consequence of workplace exposure. But because their conditions could not immediately be connected to the existing matrix of workplace hazards, they were not eligible for benefits in the federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, established by Congress in 2000. The program provides health care and financial benefits up to $250,000 to affected workers or their surviving relatives.
“There is too much we don’t know when it comes to the health outcomes of exposure to the toxic substances required for plutonium production and other activities at nuclear sites that workers at Hanford go through every day,” Murray said.
“This legislation takes the right steps to help fix this knowledge gap and ensure Hanford workers and those at other nuclear clean-up sites can obtain the full benefits they’re entitled to.”
The legislation, which is supported by Hanford workers’ unions and advocates for nuclear industry workers, would expand the list of employee groups and illnesses that would qualify for benefits. It calls for clinical and epidemiological studies, similar to those the federal government has conducted to determine benefit eligibility for workers who’ve suffered after exposure to radiological hazards, to define the parameters of eligibility.
It borrows a key aspect from a Washington state law adopted in 2018: A presumption of eligibility for workers suffering certain health maladies known to be associated with hazards at Hanford. Unlike the federal law, qualifying workers are presumed to be eligible for benefits under the state law, but their employers may challenge workers’ eligibility if they suspect factors outside of work caused the health problems.
Hanford workers sickened on the job can file for workers compensation through the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries and the Department of Energy’s third-party insurer, Penser. However, state benefit caps often fail to adequately cover a family’s routine expenses when they’re facing significant medical bills.
Evans is pursuing state benefits that could pay him up to 60% of his Hanford salary and federal benefits. His family’s once-comfortable lifestyle has been upended by his illness, and he’s worried they’ll lose their home.
“This legislation … will take the burden of proof off some of the claimants to prove causation and have claims based on the consensus of the scientific community,” said Terrie Barrie, founding member of the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, which assists atomic workers, including Evans, in their pursuit of benefits.
Barrie’s organization has petitioned the U.S. Department of Labor to designate the cohort of workers affected by the leaky respirators at Hanford eligible for federal benefits associated with toxic exposure.