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Advocates want to expand compensation for downwinders, but Utahns in Congress worry about price tag

By Kyle Dunphey - Utah News Dispatch | May 13, 2024

Associated Press file photo

In this April 22, 1952, file photo, a gigantic pillar of smoke with the familiar mushroom top climbs above Yucca Flat, Nev., during nuclear test detonation.

Congress is currently considering two competing bills that would continue compensating people who were sickened by radiation from nuclear weapons testing and development, known as downwinders.

One is sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Lee and would keep the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, alive for two more years. The other is sponsored by Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley and would widely expand the program, allowing residents of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Guam not previously eligible to apply for compensation.

Activists and downwinders want Congress to pass Hawley’s bill. Most of Utah’s delegation appears to support Lee’s bill.

Whatever Congress decides, the clock is ticking. RECA expires on June 10, giving lawmakers just a handful of working days to ensure downwinders can still receive compensation.

Passed in 1990 with help from former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, RECA provided compensation for Utahns who lived in 10 counties — Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard, Piute, San Juan, Sevier, Washington or Wayne — for two consecutive years from 1951 to 1958, or during the summer of 1962, and contracted certain types of cancer.

People who worked in uranium mines, mills or transporting ore in Utah from 1942 to 1971 were also eligible. Payouts varied, but downwinders could mostly receive $50,000, with uranium workers getting $100,000.

But activists have long called for a broader compensation package — in Utah, research shows that the whole state was exposed to dangerous levels of radiation from nuclear weapons testing. And RECA failed to cover residents who worked in but didn’t live in eligible counties, or people who contracted diseases like kidney cancer, certain kinds of leukemia or autoimmune disorders that are linked to radiation but not covered by the act.

Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney supported extending RECA by two years in 2022. In an email, a spokesperson for Romney said the price tag and the expanded list of diseases was a sticking point for Hawley’s bill.

“The recent Radiation Exposure Compensation Reauthorization Act drastically expanded the eligibility for benefits beyond the geographic center of the federal government’s Nevada Test Site and the list of diseases covered by RECA,” the spokesperson said. “Without clear evidence linking previous government action to the expanded list of illnesses, and a price tag north of $50 billion, Senator Romney could not support the legislation.”

A spokesperson for Lee echoed Romney’s concerns, telling The Hill that the cost of Hawley’s bill gives the senator pause. Both Lee and Romney voted against Hawley’s RECA bill in the Senate.

Romney’s explanation is “frustrating” to downwinders like Mary Dickson, who was diagnosed with cancer along with many of her family members and neighbors in Salt Lake City in the 1980s. Because they lived outside of the eligible counties, they were never able to receive compensation.

“I’m not sure if they’re aware of the study that occurred showing where the fallout went in Utah,” Dickson said on Friday. “It’s very frustrating to hear them basically deny what happened to their own constituents. We’re not being heard.”

Romney’s response certainly irked Hawley, who took to X on Thursday to blast the outgoing Utah Republican.

“Imagine telling African-American kids from St. Louis who can’t go to school or women in St. Louis County who have the highest rates of breast cancer in America or the good people of the Navajo Nation who are sick and dying from radiation that they aren’t ‘actually suffering,'” Hawley wrote in a social media post, later calling the expansion a “moral imperative.”

“Radiation victims from Utah and Missouri and New Mexico and more will be in DC next week. I invite Mitt Romney or Speaker Johnson to tell these families to their faces that they aren’t ‘actually suffering,'” Hawley said.

Romney’s reasoning is similar to Republican Rep. Celeste Maloy’s, whose spokesperson told Utah News Dispatch she was focused on ensuring the program didn’t expire.

“Clean reauthorizations are much less controversial and have proved much simpler to get passed. We are hopeful our reauthorization bill will be passed before Utahns lose coverage in just a few weeks, whereas we believe the current expansion bills are unlikely to be approved before the deadline,” the spokesperson said.

Dickson called that approach “the easy way out.”

“It’s not serving their constituents. It’s more of what they’ve done for a while, which is just kicking the can down the road. Why keep delaying what we need to do?” she said.

And Rep. Blake Moore, a Republican, reaffirmed his support for an additional RECA bill, initially introduced in 2023 by Wyoming Republican Rep. Harriet Hageman. Called the Uranium Miners and Workers Act of 2023, the bill extends RECA benefits to people who worked in a uranium mine or mill until 1978.

Moore and Utah’s other three representatives are co-sponsors of the bill.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress to reauthorize this program for Utahns,” Moore said in a statement Friday.

Hawley’s bill, which passed the Senate after a bipartisan 69-30 vote in March, would compensate anyone “present” in Utah during nuclear testing who then got sick, increase the compensation to $100,000 and expand the list of eligible diseases. It would also cover uranium mine and mill employees who worked up until 1990 and extend compensation to uranium core drillers and remediation workers.

The bill makes it easier to file for compensation, while further funding Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program clinics, which screens people exposed to radiation and helps them apply for compensation.

In addition to expanding coverage to the entire state of Utah, eligible residents living in all of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Guam would be compensated.

However, Hawley didn’t sound confident that his bill will get a vote from the House during a speech on the Senate floor last week.

“Why is Congress failing to act again? Well because the House doesn’t want to vote on it,” he said. “There’s only one month remaining until this vital program … goes dark, before people exposed to nuclear waste by their own government get nothing. We have one month to go. And the House has not acted.”

Utah News Dispatch reached out to the offices of Lee and Republican Reps. John Curtis and Burgess Owens, but did not get a response as of publication time.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.

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