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Comp bill for nuclear workers could spur proposals in other states

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Hanford Site nuclear reactor

A bill that would provide a workers compensation benefits for cancer and other illnesses suffered by workers at a decommissioned nuclear site in Washington state could spur other states with antiquated and toxic nuclear sites to consider similar legislation, according to experts.

Lawmakers in Washington state are slated to hear public comments on House Bill 1723 on Thursday, which was introduced in late January by state Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland. Rep. Haler worked for 40 years at the decommissioned Hanford nuclear site in Hanford, Washington.

H.B. 1723 would establish a workers comp presumption for former Hanford workers who suffer from specific cancers, including leukemia, lung cancer, bone cancer, kidney cancer, lymphoma and other cancers affecting more than a dozen body parts, according to a copy of the bill posted online. The bill would also cover respiratory and neurological diseases, as well as heart problems experienced within 72 hours of exposure to on-site fumes, toxic substances or chemicals at the Hanford site.

In a statement to Business Insurance, the Olympia, Washington-based Washington Self-Insurers Association said it disagrees with the proposed legislation. In particular, the association took issue with bill language that would provide presumption eligibility for any worker who spent as much as one eight-hour shift on the 560-square-mile nuclear site.

“The proposal makes it nearly impossible for the employer to fairly and reasonably price the cost of the risk and exposure created by the bill,” the statement said.

Workers comp expert Brian Allen, Westerville, Ohio-based vice president of government affairs for pharmacy benefit manager OptumRx Inc., said if passed, nuclear site-related comp claims at Hanford would likely pile up, and worker advocates in other states likely will take notice.

“There are around 60 operating nuclear power plants and an unknown number of nuclear research facilities — 31 publicly known facilities and probably some classified sites—in the (United States),” he said. “The facilities aren't found in every state, so I'm not sure you would get enough activity to qualify as a floodgate, but you would likely see other states look to Washington and follow suit.”

The bill seeks to do what workers comp presumption bills have done for firefighters exposed to toxins while working in Washington and other states, said Tom Carpenter, attorney and executive director for the Seattle-based Hanover Challenge, an advocacy group that works for transparency and accountability at the Hanford site.

“Washington state had created a presumption for firefighters in 1987 because of the difficulty of being able to pin down the exposures that firefighters get when they rush into a burning building (with) all kinds of chemicals and hazardous chemicals … they inhale it, it gets on their skin,” he said. “Many feel that the same should apply to Hanford nuclear site workers for the same reasons.”

“This is an effort to pull those workers under the same causation, presumption umbrella,” Mr. Carpenter added.

The Hanford site is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy and opened in 1943 to help manufacture the plutonium used in one of the atomic bombs dropped over Japan during World War II. “Hanford was one of the major cogs in the nuclear weapons wheel in the 1940s (through the) 1980s,” said Patricia K. Cianciolo, a Marquette, Michigan-based professor in social work at Northern Michigan University.

Infamous for its toxic smells and illnesses among those who worked there, the site is among the “most contaminated nuclear sites” in the country, said Ms. Cianciolo, who has studied illnesses and workers comp issues among workers at historic nuclear sites nationwide.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says plutonium production ended at Hanford in the late 1980s and cleanup began at the site in 1989. But concerns about contamination at the site continue. An Associated Press report last week said that radioactive contamination had spread at Hanford during the demolition of a plutonium plant at the site.

Nuclear workers with cancer or respiratory issues often face frustrating bureaucratic roadblocks when trying to receive workers comp for their medical conditions, Ms. Cianciolo said.

The federal government’s nuclear workers comp program — dubbed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program — establishes a presumption for cancer and other illnesses suffered by nuclear workers, but only if a person was documented to have to worked in a certain area, during a specific period, and in some cases, if their exposure was documented in a logbook, according to Ms. Cianciolo.

“It’s heart-wrenching to go through that proof process,” she said. “Meanwhile, a person is sick and they are paying for everything themselves.”

She’s among those who speculate that a law such as H.B. 1723 in Washington state could have wider implications nationwide. “It potentially could open the floodgates, but on the other hand it could bring social justice to a lot of workers and their families.”