By NICKOLAS BUMPAOUS
In 1943, the federal government brought 50,000 people to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to manufacture plutonium for the world’s first atomic bombs. In 1990, Hanford’s mission shifted from nuclear materials production to environmental clean-up.
Today, Hanford remains the most contaminated worksite in the western world. And yet, the people who work there face nearly insurmountable barriers accessing the workers’ compensation safety net when they get sick due to toxic exposure.
That will end with this year’s passage of HB 1723.
Despite the recognized uniqueness of the risks, Hanford workers’ comp claims are denied at five times the rate of other self-insured employers. The U.S. Department of Energy and its contractors, have used the lack of accurate worksite data to question and deny the validity of sick workers’ claims. This highlighted the need for a new standard presuming that certain occupational illnesses are work-related, and for the last two years Plumbers and Steamfitters (UA) Local 598 has led the charge to implement just that.
In 2017, Rep. Larry Haler (R-Richland) sponsored HB 1723, creating an occupational illness presumption for Hanford workers. It passed the House on a bipartisan vote, but died in the Senate committee chaired by Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane).
This year, under the leadership of the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Haler and Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Kent) fought strong and swift to reintroduce and fast track the bill in both houses.
House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) and Rep. Mike Sells (D-Everett), chair of the House labor committee, positioned HB 1723 for early floor action and on Jan. 11, just three days into the session, the House passed it 74-21 (see Vote #7). With Keiser, now Chair of the Senate labor committee, leading the charge, the Senate passed it 35-14 (Vote #1) on Jan. 25. After House concurrence with minor changes, Gov. Jay Inslee signed HB 1723 into law on March 7.
Hanford’s story began with a mission for the benefit and protection of this great country. Our selfless Nuclear Veterans continue that mission to this day, protecting our lands, our rivers, and our air.
Cleaning up 56 million gallons of radioactive waste will take at least another 50 years. During that time, Hanford workers will continue to be exposed to some of the most hazardous substances known to man.
In 2018, the Legislature’s moral compass and strong advocacy by Local Union 598 and organized labor has led Hanford workers to more secure shores and has come to the aid of these proud citizens and their families.
Nickolas Bumpaous is Political and Government Affairs Director of UA Local 598.