A team of auditors from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is on the ground at the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington.
The team’s members are tasked with reviewing the workers’ compensation claims process at the former nuclear weapons site. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, called for the review on March 8 after the KING 5 series “Sick and Forgotten at Hanford” exposed major flaws in the system set up to help workers who become injured or ill from their work at the most toxic worksite in the country.
KING found a process riddled with unfair practices that prevent those who are suffering from occupational related illnesses from getting the help and compensation they deserve and are entitled to. Some of the unfair tactics include doctor shopping, decisions based on incomplete or incorrect medical records and program administrators pressuring medical professionals to alter their opinions.
“Multiple accounts of workers’ compensation claims being dismissed on arbitrary grounds, tactics bordering on intimidation, and actions taken to discredit claims have been shared with us. These allegations are very troubling and we urge the OIG to take immediate action. Specifically, the OIG should investigate the treatment of workers and claims throughout the tenure of Penser’s contract with the Department,” the Senators wrote to April Stephenson, the Energy Department’s acting inspector general.
By law, only the state of Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries can officially deny a Hanford worker’s claim, but the program is run by a contractor hired by the Department of Energy, which owns Hanford. Since 2009 that contractor has been Penser North America. Shortly after KING launched “Sick and Forgotten at Hanford,” the federal agency cancelled the company’s contract.
Several sick workers and their family members shared their stories of unfair denials and harassment by the workers compensation program at Hanford. They expressed resentment and frustration with having served a system that made them sick, but then saw themselves cast aside.
Dave Aardal is suffering from lung and colon cancer, liver damage and an incurable lung disease after being exposed to the toxic metal, beryllium, at Hanford. Aardal sued the Energy Department and Penser after getting his claims denied. He won, but was never awarded disability compensation after a Penser-hired physician concluded that Aardal could still work as a security officer. The Aardals have been forced to sell family possessions, including his wife Christine Aardal’s wedding ring, to pay the bills.
“It doesn’t affect them. They’re not here. They don’t see our day to day lives and what we have to go through. What we have gone through,” said Christine Aardal. “They carry on, they make money, they live in their fancy houses, they go on their vacations, it doesn’t affect them. Who holds them accountable? When does this end?”
The inspector general team consists of five members. It’s unclear when the investigation will be complete or its findings published.
The huge Hanford Site was created during the Second World War. Nuclear reactors were built to supply plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Production continued for four decades. Since the 1980s, government workers and private contractors have spent billions to clean up radioactive and chemically toxic waste generated by the plutonium program. The cleanup is expected to continue through the end of the century.
Related: What is Hanford?