State Attorney General Bob Ferguson made it clear during a stop in Kent about his passion and drive to help protect workers from hazardous chemical vapors at the Hanford nuclear reservation in the Tri-Cities.
Ferguson last year filed a civil lawsuit against the federal government and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, for failing to protect workers who are removing nuclear waste from leaking underground storage tanks.
“It has the most highly radioactive nuclear waste in all of North America stored there,” Ferguson said during his guest speaker appearance at the Rotary Club of Kent meeting Tuesday at the ShoWare Center.
The federal government manufactured plutonium at the Hanford site in the 1940s for use in the first nuclear bomb, detonated over Nagasaki, Japan during World War II. Plutonium production continued until the 1980s.
“There are about 150 underground storage tanks, huge tanks, most are single-shelled tanks,” Ferguson said. “Thirty are called leakers because they are many years past their useful life. Workers are there to clean this up.”
But those workers continue to get sick.
“The federal government doesn’t know all the chemicals in the tanks, vapors get released and workers are exposed to vapors,” Ferguson said. “It has been a couple decades of getting sick, nosebleeds, headaches and serious illnesses.”
Ferguson said experts hired by the federal government have issued reports about how to stop workers from getting sick yet the problem remains.
“I cannot answer why but they haven’t done those things,” he said. “We filed suit against the federal government and its contractors over worker safety. We do not take lightly suing the federal government. …But their own experts tell them what to do, but then they roll back protections. Even after we filed our lawsuit they rolled back protections and another 50 workers got exposed.”
State officials had a court hearing on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Spokane with the U.S. Department of Energy as the state tries to get protections in place for workers before the case goes to trial next year.
To emphasize the importance of protecting workers, Ferguson compared the Hanford case to one of his brothers who travels each year to Alaska to work in the fishing industry.
“It’s my expectations, as his brother, that his employer provides him a safe work environment,” Ferguson said. “It would piss me off if they didn’t do that.”
Ferguson didn’t want to have to take on the federal government, but he saw no other choice.
“I hate to say it but it’s our government doing it,” he said. “I take no pleasure in saying that. But at Hanford there is a cultural indifference to worker safety there. That’s a fact. I cannot explain it and I’m not proud that’s our government doing it, but it’s been going on too long. We are moving forward with that litigation.”
Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke asked Ferguson at the Tuesday luncheon whether he might run for governor someday.
“I appreciate your thoughts,” Ferguson said. “My wife may not appreciate it, but I appreciate it. But I’m pretty focused on what I’m doing.”
Cooke asked the question because Ferguson had explained earlier about how his career has followed in the footsteps of Rob McKenna as University of Washington student body president, becoming a lawyer, serving as a King County Council member and as state attorney general. McKenna ran for governor in 2012 but lost to Jay Inslee. He now works for a Seattle law firm.
Ferguson, a Democrat who is running for reelection as attorney general against Libertarian Joshua Trumball on the Nov. 8 ballot, is unsure about a run for governor in part because his wife, Colleen, prefers to remain out of the spotlight.
“As public as my life is, my wife is an intensely private woman,” he said. “She has no Facebook page, but she puts up and supports my public life.”
Ferguson also enjoys his role as attorney general and the differences he can make as opposed to legislative branches.
“More and more at the federal level we see how dysfunctional Congress is,” he said. “And at the state level we have divided government. I’m not talking critical of public servants who are working hard but it’s tough to get things done in Olympia these days.”
He likes how he can get things done as an attorney general.
“The role of an attorney general is an increasing role, if you like law and proposing policy,” he said. “I propose laws every year. In my view attorney general is the best job there is. I use it to correct wrongs.”
During his nearly 30-minute talk, Ferguson also discussed business scams, marijuana legalization, campaign finance laws, the Oso landslide and Backpage.com and its role in human trafficking.