‘Nobody is listening to us:' Hanford families beg lawmakers to help

Bertolla Bugarin's husband developed many health problems after a short, but intense exposure to chemical vapors at Hanford.
↓ Advertisement ↓

Sick Hanford workers and their families gave emotional appeals to state lawmakers on Wednesday, pleading the Senate Labor, Commerce and Sports Committee use its power to help them get the medical care and compensation they are entitled to and need.

The KING 5 investigation “Sick and Forgotten at Hanford” has found standard protocol at Hanford is to deny workers who’ve become ill from exposure to toxic chemicals and metals on the job, according to worker compensation claims. 

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), who is self-insured, is in charge of the site and its worker compensation program. They hire a third party administrator to filter and manage claims. Workers report a cruel system of denial using misleading information, misinformation, and doctor shopping to deny that working at the Superfund site made them sick.

Through tears, Bertolla Bugarin told committee members about her husband’s many health problems after a short but intense exposure to chemical vapors. Soon after, Abe Garza developed a myriad of conditions including vocal cord dysfunction, asthma, reactive airway disease, heavy metal poisoning, chronic bronchitis, and toxic encephalopathy (chemical induced dementia). But when they applied for worker compensation benefits, they were turned down.

↓ Advertisement ↓

“Hanford (representatives) said it was just allergies and asthma and not to worry about it,” said Bugarin. “He was exposed to 8,000 pounds of the most toxic chemicals known to man at the most toxic site in the United States, and I’m really angry that nobody is listening to us.”

Related: AG urges Senate to support sick Hanford workers

The Senate committee, chaired by Sen. Michael Baumgartner of Spokane, has the power to listen and act.

By law, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, on the advice of the DOE’s worker comp contractor, has the final say on what Hanford claims are accepted or rejected. The legislature can pass a bill before them that directs Labor and Industries to give workers the benefit of the doubt or a presumption of occupational illness if they come down with certain conditions, including thyroid cancer and lung disease.

The state legislature granted a similar status to firefighters in 1987.

Melinda Rouse came to Olympia to advocate on behalf of her husband, who has chemical induced dementia. They’ve been fighting the DOE and its contractor, Penser North America, for eight years. They’ve had to spend their life savings and file for bankruptcy due to the cost of medical and legal bills and lack of income. Rouse begged the state to use its power and step in.

“Let those vapors hit your family. You come to me when you get sick. I’ll be here to help you because I need you to help us right now. Somebody’s got to have the integrity to stop the self-governing Department of Energy,” said Rouse.

Because the DOE is self-insured, the federal government would pick up the tab if the measure is passed, not the taxpayers of the state of Washington. Hanford families who feel abandoned by the feds want state legislators to step up and take care of their own.

“My husband is a veteran. He served the Army. He served this country,” Bugarin said. “He served again when he chose to take this job to clean up for the betterment for all of Washington, all of the United States, and the world because we decided to develop an atomic bomb. And he is not being helped now.”

Lobbyists from the business community who testified against the bill said the language is too broad and sets a bad precedent for other self-insured companies in the state.

Earlier this month, the full Washington State House of Representatives passed the bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, by a wide margin. Now the Labor, Commerce, and Sports Committee will decide if the full Senate will be allowed to weigh in.

Hanford is a 586 square mile reservation located along the Columbia River near Richland. From 1943 to 1989 workers at the site produced plutonium that fueled the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, then continued production throughout the Cold War as the federal government augmented its stockpile of nuclear weapons. Since 1989 the mission at Hanford has been one of clean up only. Because it is a former weapons facility, the US Dept. of Energy regulates its own safety program. Neither OSHA, nor the state of Washington is allowed on the site to regulate safety issues related to human health.