State will fight feds over Hanford worker compensation

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Officials for the state of Washington said Tuesday they will defend a new law that helps employees of a former nuclear weapons production site win worker compensation claims, after the federal government filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee criticized the lawsuit as outrageous and "depraved."

"The people who fought communism shouldn't have to fight their federal government to get the health care they deserve," said Inslee, who is weighing a run for the White House in 2020.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed the lawsuit on Monday in federal court for the Eastern District of Washington.

The Washington Legislature last spring passed a law that says some cancers and other illnesses among Hanford Nuclear Reservation workers are assumed to have been caused by chemical or radiological exposures at work, unless that presumption can be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.

Hanford was created during World War II and for decades during the Cold War made plutonium for nuclear weapons. About 10,000 workers are now engaged in the dangerous work of cleaning up the resulting radioactive waste. The site is near Richland, Washington.

The cleanup work is expected to take decades.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said his office was 16-0 in lawsuits filed against the federal government and that he was confident they would prevail in this case.

"This lawsuit is based on an incorrect interpretation of the interaction between state and federal law," Ferguson said, noting that worker compensation was a state program.

The lawsuit said the new law violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it purports to directly regulate the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which operates Hanford, 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.

Hanford Challenge, a nuclear watchdog group, and the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters, Local Union 598, both backed passage of the law.

"Workers are finally getting the justice they require," said Tom Carpenter, head of Hanford Challenge, on Tuesday.

The legislation signed into law in March by Inslee was propelled through the Legislature by the concerns of sick Hanford workers frustrated by state denials of their compensation claims.

The legislation drew opposition from the Washington Self-Insurers Association and the Association of Washington Business, with critics arguing it would set a bad precedent.

Ferguson said he presumed the federal government was worried the new Washington law might spread to other states where federal employees were involved in dangerous work. He predicted the issue would likely be resolved at trial.

"Before this, workers had to prove that whatever illness they had was not caused by something else in their lives," Ferguson said.

Inslee called it another attempt by the Trump administration to take health care away from people in the state.

"They want to tell workers at Hanford to go hang," said Inslee, who used to represent the Hanford site in Congress.

Lynne Dodson of the Washington State Labor Council said the federal government should be working to improve worker safety, rather than pursuing this lawsuit.

"Donald Trump and (Energy Secretary) Rick Perry would kick these workers while they are down," Dodson said.