(Washington, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Senate health and labor committee, and U.S. Representative Adam Smith (D, WA-09), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced legislation in the Senate and House that will ensure cleanup workers at the Hanford Nuclear Site and other Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear sites can more easily claim worker’s compensation benefits when they suffer from certain medical conditions as a result of exposure to toxic substances. Currently, Hanford workers can file for worker’s compensation claims when they have health issues through both the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries and DOE’s third-party insurer, Penser. Washington state’s 2018 presumption law makes it easier for Hanford workers to file for state compensation claims for covered conditions, but the state program, while valuable, very often falls short of being able to compensate these workers equitably when they are off the job from work-related illness due to toxic exposure. The Toxic Exposure Safety Act of 2020 seeks to make such claims at the federal level more achievable, and allow Hanford workers and workers at similar DOE sites to collect the full worker’s compensation benefits they’re entitled to.
“Unfortunately, it is clear there’s a lot we don’t know regarding the health outcomes of exposure to the toxic substances required for plutonium production and other nuclear site activities—and workers like those at the Hanford site have paid the price for this critical hole in the research,” said Senator Murray. “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 when they’ve contracted illnesses as a result of workplace exposure. I’m proud to be introducing it with my Washington state colleague Representative Smith, and I’m looking forward to working together to push this needed legislation through to the finish line.”
“Workers at nuclear cleanup sites such as Hanford face risks to their health and wellbeing every day. Unfortunately, it is difficult for workers to receive benefits under federal law in many instances when they suffer medical illness as a result of exposure to toxic substances,” said Congressman Smith. “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. I am pleased to join Senator Murray in introducing this bill and appreciate her tireless leadership in fighting for Hanford workers.”
The legislation comes after the Seattle Times ran an investigative story in March 2020 profiling a worker who suffered from seizures after being exposed to toxic substances at the Plutonium Finishing Plant on the Hanford site, as well as the financial problems the worker encountered following their diagnosis. The Toxic Exposure Safety Act of 2020 would expand covered employees and the covered illnesses under subtitle E, Section 3671 of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000 (EEOICPA) to specifically include employees exposed to toxic substances at cleanup sites. Part E provides variable cash and medical benefits for DOE contractor and subcontractor employees who contracted an illness or died as a result of exposure to any toxic substance, as well as their eligible survivors. A person is eligible for Part E benefits if it is “at least as likely as not” that exposure to a toxic substance at a DOE facility caused, contributed to, or aggravated the worker’s illness or death.
There has been a lack of substantial clinical or epidemiological studies performed in relation to toxic exposures at DOE sites, and as such, there is no way to create an accurate causal correlation for Part E, similar to what has been effectively established for Part B of the program, which involves radiological exposures. As a result of the lack of this knowledge, federal law provides very little remedy to workers who suffer illness from these toxic exposures. To that end, the Toxic Exposure Safety Act of 2020 would amend Part E of the EEOICPA to establish a presumption of occupational disease exposures, create a research program to determine exposure-disease correlation, and direct the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate scientific evidence regarding chemical exposures—making it easier for Hanford clean-up workers and workers at other DOE nuclear clean-up sites to claim federal worker’s compensation benefits.
“Every day our Nation relies on skilled and dedicated working families to serves our Country’s needs and accomplish our most important goals. There is no more apparent example of this dedication than the decades of operation and remediation performed at our Nation’s nuclear cleanup sites. The hazardous nature of this work has the potential to expose workers to some of the most toxic substances on earth. Too long have the impacts of these toxic substance exposures been overlooked and their study underfunded, leaving many hardworking American families without the care they deserve. Senator Murray’s efforts address this injustice for so many families struggling with illness and will secure the research needed to protect American families as they continue their work on behalf of us all,” said Nickolas Bumpaous, President of Central Washington Building & Construction Trades.
“I’ve worked 43 years in the construction trades, most of them at Hanford, and now as the Business Manager of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union. Through all of those years I’ve witnessed firsthand the dedication of thousands of hard working men and women to support the national mission. I’ve also witnessed their sacrifices and illnesses and the hazardous work and the toxic environments these men and women have been exposed to. These workers deserve more and better care. I support and appreciate Senator Murray’s efforts to help these dedicated working families,” said Randy Walli, Business Manager of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 598.
Senator Murray has long worked to make sure the federal government honors its moral and legal obligation to Hanford clean-up, including fighting repeatedly against efforts to slash or cut federal funding for the vital DOE project and advocating on at the federal level on separate occasions to help ensure Hanford workers receive sick leave back pay and regular pay during work-stop periods due to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. Senator Murray and her office began working in 2019 to investigate the needs of Hanford workers who have specifically been exposed to toxic chemicals at DOE sites. Congressman Smith has fought for worker safety and protections at the Hanford site for years. In his role as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Smith has passed into law provisions to enhance whistleblower protections, increase accountability for the release of radioactive or hazardous contamination, and improved transparency on vapors from nuclear tanks. He has also fought for better oversight of nuclear facilities across the country, including protecting the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) from dangerous cuts and reforms that harm its mission of independent nuclear safety and oversight.
In addition to the Central Washington Building & Construction Trades, and Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union 598, the legislation is supported by the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, Metal Trades.
Read the bill text HERE.
For more information, read the fact sheet available HERE.