By Micheal Cork
While HBO’s Chernobyl has captured many Washingtonians’ attention with the retelling of the historic nuclear accident in then-Soviet Ukraine, the most contaminated workplace in the western hemisphere has received far less scrutiny despite being in our own backyard. This undesirable title belongs to the Hanford nuclear site in southeastern Washington, where thousands of workers are undertaking the largest environmental cleanup job in U.S. history. Unfortunately, despite undergoing significant risks to clean up hazardous nuclear waste, I’ve learned that workers health and safety is not always prioritized at Hanford.
I first heard about the Hanford site in one of my classes at the University of Washington as a Master’s in Public Health student. While my research area is primarily focused on global health – I’m currently working on measuring the global distribution of HIV – I also wanted to focus on a local health issue in need of attention. I was granted this opportunity when assigned to work on a practicum project with Hanford Challenge. For the past 10 weeks, I’ve worked with executive director Tom Carpenter and fellow graduate students to grasp the effects of a new law that makes it easier for Hanford workers to win workers compensation benefits.
During this investigation, I’ve been astonished by the Federal Government’s reprehensible treatment of workers health that led to the creation of the new “presumption” law. For those who are unaware, last year the Washington State Legislature passed a law that states some cancers and other illnesses among workers are presumed to be caused by exposures while working at Hanford. I learned that prior to this law, many Hanford workers were unfairly denied workers compensation claims through shady tactics by the Federal Government that discouraged and limited compensation benefits. I listened to workers and advocates recount these injustices, and their stories are what stuck with me most from my time working with Hanford Challenge.
I heard from people like Abe Garza, a Hanford worker who has nerve damage on his hands and feet and has been diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy caused by chemical exposures. Garza believes his illness was caused by exposure to chemicals at Hanford, but to this day he hasn’t been paid a cent by the Federal Government. I heard from Lonnie Rouse, who also suffers from toxic encephalopathy from working at Hanford. He’s fought for over a decade against the Federal Government and their contractors despite dishonest legal tactics and attempts to discredit him. I met advocates like Nick Bumpaous, who worked alongside Hanford families, local unions, and Hanford Challenge, to draft the “presumption” law to reduce the burden of proof for Hanford workers.
Listening to these stories, I’ve learned that accountability and oversight are crucial to ensuring workers receive the care they deserve. By building trust and working together, workers, local organizations and unions were able to pass a comprehensive workers compensation law that survived legal challenges from the Trump administration. Most importantly, working with Hanford Challenge taught me that you don’t have to look far to find problems worth fighting for and that there are often good people ready to help you get involved.
About the author: Micheal Cork is pursuing his Masters in Public Health from the University of Washington.