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Bill from Utahns in Congress could jeopardize expanded compensation for downwinders

By Kyle Dunphey - Utah News Dispatch | Apr 24, 2024

Photo supplied, Library of Congress

A fireball ascends from the first atomic artillery shell in history, tested at the Nevada Test Site in 1953. Radiation from the test site fell across the West.

For decades, downwinders have criticized the Radiation Compensation Exposure Act, or RECA, for being too narrow.

Designed to compensate people exposed to and sickened by nuclear weapons development, activists say RECA has glaring cracks — for starters, it only covered 10 counties in Utah despite research suggesting the whole state was exposed to dangerous, cancer-causing levels of radiation during Cold War-era testing.

And it excluded people who worked but didn’t reside in eligible counties, lived just across the eligible county line, or had kidney cancer, certain kinds of leukemia, autoimmune disorders or other diseases that are linked to radiation but not covered by the act.

Now set to expire this June, RECA was on track for a bipartisan facelift after the U.S. Senate voted 69-30 in March to expand the program’s eligibility and increase compensation for downwinders. The bill was championed by Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, of Missouri, whose district includes parts of St. Louis where creek water was contaminated by radiation during nuclear weapons development.

But members of Utah’s congressional delegation are jeopardizing Hawley’s bill by introducing a bill of their own that would simply extend the program deadline by two years, but not expand it. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee in the Senate and Rep. Celeste Maloy in the House, both Republicans from Utah.

“They are undermining the current bill that passed in the Senate,” said Mary Dickson, a downwinder from Salt Lake City. “What we’re looking for is not another temporary extension … We’ve already had those. It doesn’t do anything for the people in northern Utah.”

Cancer racked the Salt Lake City neighborhood where Dickson grew up. Her older sister died from complications from lupus, which studies show can be caused by radiation exposure; her younger sister has stomach cancer and another has autoimmune diseases. She has a niece who developed breast cancer, and another niece with thyroid issues and other health complications including lupus. Dickson herself was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1985.

But no one in her family was eligible for compensation because they lived outside of the 10 counties in Utah covered by RECA.

Dickson has lobbied Congress for years to expand RECA — the passage of Hawley’s bill in March, was a victory “decades” in the making, she said. On Monday, she accused the Utah delegation of posturing.

“It’s their way of trying to look like they’re doing something, but not actually doing anything,” she said.

That sentiment is shared on the Navajo Nation by the tribe’s president, Buu Nygren, who in a video address last week described how the push to mine uranium “brought us sickness and death. Our poisoned land has taken Navajo lives and stricken others with illnesses that they continue to battle.”

In the video, Nygren called on House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, to bring Hawley’s bill to the floor for a vote before Lee’s extension bill gets any traction.

“The Senate has voted to update it, yet Utah’s representatives have disappointed us. It is disheartening to witness a lack of support for those who represent the very soil that our borders extend to,” Nygren said. “The Navajo people are not just constituents of Arizona and New Mexico, but also Utah. We deserve representation. How many more must suffer before Congress acts?”

RECA currently covers Utah residents who lived in one of 10 counties — Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard, Piute, San Juan, Sevier, Washington and Wayne — for two consecutive years from 1951 to 1958, or during the summer of 1962. People who worked in uranium mines, mills or transporting ore in Utah from 1942 to 1971 were also eligible.

The program was passed in 1990, with help from former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. Now, it risks expiring — when the House returns on April 29, lawmakers will have 19 working days to pass some kind of RECA extension. If they do nothing, compensation will end on June 10.

Hawley’s bill would expand much of RECA, extending compensation to anyone “present” in Utah during nuclear testing who then got sick, increasing the compensation to $100,000 and expanding the eligible diseases. It would cover people who worked in uranium mines and mills up until 1990, extending the current timeframe by nearly 20 years, and extend compensation to uranium core drillers and remediation workers. The bill makes it easier to file for compensation, and further funds 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.

Hawley has said he hopes the expansion will be added to a bill expanding child tax credits.

By comparison, the more recent bill from Lee would keep RECA alive for two more years, but makes no other changes to the program.

Lee said the bill sends a message that the country “is not abandoning these victims and communities.”

“When the government harms people, victims should be able to receive compensation. Downwinders and others harmed by the nation’s early atomic program often suffer the consequences of exposure decades after the fact,” Lee said in a statement.

And Maloy, who told Utah News Dispatch in December that her father was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and might have been a downwinder, said Congress can’t let RECA expire.

“Many Utahns were harmed by the federal government’s aboveground testing of nuclear weapons during the early atomic program, and decades later they, along with their families, are still paying a high price,” she said.

The bill is also co-sponsored by outgoing Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney, who said it will “allow residents of Utah who were affected by our nation’s early nuclear program to be properly compensated.”

Still, for Dickson and other downwinders, the statements ring hollow.

“Our elected officials in Utah have turned their back on us. It’s incredibly disheartening and frustrating that we really don’t have anyone representing us on this in our own state,” she said. “They just keep kicking the can down the road and meanwhile, people are dying.”

Dickson, describing the human cost of RECA’s shortcomings, said people will continue to struggle to pay for their health care, or bury their loved ones amid a mountain of medical debt. She spoke of one woman living in New Mexico who was recently diagnosed with cancer and has no way to pay for treatment; another woman told Dickson she plans to continue her activism until Hawley’s bill passes “or I’m in the ground.”

“To not take care of your own people, who the government harmed, is a moral failure,” she said.

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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