The Supreme Court agreed to review a Washington state law that extended workers’ compensation benefits to workers at a decommissioned federal nuclear production facility where employees suffered exposure to radioactive waste and toxic fumes.
The case could have expensive consequences for U.S. government contracts related to hazardous work conducted on federal property. The Biden administration argues that the state law impermissibly intrudes on federal authority.
The decision to hear the case, United States v. Washington, court file 21-404, an appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, came Jan. 10. The high court didn’t provide reasons for its decision, according to its custom. The case likely will be heard in the coming months.
Since 1989, the U.S. Department of Energy has been overseeing the cleanup at the Hanford Site, a 600-square-mile site along the Columbia River in Washington state, which made weapons-grade plutonium for the Manhattan Project, the nation’s nuclear program during World War II and the Cold War. The remediation of the site is anticipated to span the coming six decades and involve about 400 department employees, along with another 10,000 contractors and subcontractors, according to a Bloomberg Law summary.
The Hanford Site was chosen because it had a ready supply of cold river water needed to cool nuclear reactors, plenty of hydroelectric power, mild climate, good transportation facilities, and was far away from major population centers. Workers there built and operated the world’s first nuclear production reactors that generated the plutonium used in the Trinity Test and in the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945, according to the National Park Service, which runs a visitors center there.
In 2018, Washington state enacted House Bill 1723, which created a legal presumption that some medical conditions affecting workers involved in remediation efforts at the site are occupation-related diseases that can lead to workers’ compensation benefits. Workers have to demonstrate they were injured on the job before they can seek benefits. The law was passed after reports emerged that workers in Hanford had become sickened but were denied workers’ compensation benefits because they were federal contractors.
Federal employees at Hanford, like all other federal employees, receive workers’ compensation coverage through the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, according to the U.S. government’s petition to the Supreme Court.
“The FECA does not apply to individuals, including federal contract workers, who are directly employed by entities other than the federal government,” the petition states. “Absent congressional consent, States generally have limited authority to enforce their laws at federally owned facilities or on federal land.”
The federal government sued, claiming the statute discriminates against it and the firms employing federal contract workers, and citing the intergovernmental-immunity principle of the supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution. A U.S. district court granted summary judgment to the state and a panel of the 9th Circuit upheld that decision. The panel later amended its decision and, over the dissent of four judges, the circuit court denied a petition that would have had the full appeals court rehear the case.
The Biden administration said the reasoning behind the 9th Circuit’s decision could encourage other states to enact laws targeting operations at federal facilities.
“Congress did not permit States to adopt laws that impose unique burdens on the United States and the firms that it engages to carry out federal functions,” administration lawyers argued. “The practical consequences of the panel’s mistake are far-reaching. Even if the Hanford site is considered in isolation, the decision is likely to cost the United States tens of millions of dollars annually for the remainder of the 21st century.”
In September 2021, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, called out the Biden administration, saying it was involved in a “cruel effort” to invalidate the state law.
“The Trump administration attempted to gut Washington’s protections for Hanford workers that get sick on the job—and my legal team beat them twice. We defeated the Trump administration in a federal court in Yakima, and again at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals,” he said.
“Now the Biden administration is continuing Donald Trump’s cruel effort to eliminate these critical protections for the hardworking men and women at Hanford.”
Ferguson didn’t respond to a request from The Epoch Times for comment before press time.