Congress lets compensation for downwinders expire, but advocates see a path forward

By: Kyle Dunphey, Utah News Dispatch

After months of advocacy and lobbying Congress, time has run out for downwinders hoping to expand compensation for the harms caused by nuclear weapons testing and development.

The decades-old Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, expires June 10. The Senate already passed a bipartisan bill that would expand the program, but with the House not in session Friday and neither chambers meeting Monday, RECA will lapse after the weekend.

It’s a blow for downwinders, who for years have urged Congress to not only keep the program alive, but expand it. 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.

That’s despite ample evidence that the radiation traveled well beyond those county lines, impacting the entire state of Utah and much of the Mountain West with dangerous, cancer-causing levels of radiation.

“At that time, they could only document problems in 22 counties. Now we know that the downwind results and exposures were much more broad,” said Mary Yakaitis, who lived in Salt Lake City when above-ground nuclear testing was being conducted in Nevada. Yakaitis, herself a breast cancer survivor, had three of her siblings die from cancer at a young age. None were ever eligible for compensation.

But advocates and several House Democrats are hopeful that Congress will find a solution. On Friday, New Mexico Democrat Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, said she believes the lapse will only be temporary, telling reporters on a press call that the House has the votes to amend the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, to include a provision expanding RECA.

Her message to House Speaker Mike Johnson? “Let us vote! … Let us vote on an amendment to make sure that everybody is covered.”

On Tuesday, the House Rules Committee will consider what amendments will be allowed to the NDAA, though Leger Ferdnandez said it’s up to House leadership.

“We’re going to be voting on a lot of amendments, let this be one of them,” she said.

That amendment would mirror the bill already passed in the Senate, spearheaded by Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican, that would greatly expand RECA to include eligible residents in all of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Guam and parts of Missouri and Kentucky.

Under the amendment, downwinders would be eligible for up to $100,000 to cover medical bills and the program would last 10 years. It would also expand the list of eligible diseases, cover uranium mine and mill employees who worked up until 1990, and compensate uranium core drillers and remediation workers.

Despite Leger Fernandez’s claim that the House has the votes to pass the amendment, Utah Republican Rep. Celeste Maloy called the bill “dead on arrival.” In a video statement posted on Thursday, Maloy said Hawley’s expansion was too much of a financial burden.

Instead, Maloy said she supports a 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, but still excludes much of Utah.

Utah Republican Rep. Blake Moore has also signaled his support for Hageman’s bill.

If that bill fails, Maloy said she is pushing for a simple extension of RECA, keeping the 1990s-era program as is. Whatever happens, Maloy wants a “right-sized bill that protects Utahns but doesn’t end up spending a lot of money that’s not related to radiation exposure and government action.”

That stings for downwinders like Mary Dickson, another Salt Lake City resident and cancer survivor, who called Maloy’s statement “maddening.”

“To me, it shows she doesn’t really understand this issue or the Senate bill,” Dickson said on Friday. “She’s working against expanding compensation. What she is saying is not what constituents want.”

That sentiment was echoed by Leger Fernandez, who called a simple extension akin to a “no vote.”

“The people who have been directly harmed and will benefit when we pass RECA, they have been very clear that they are not for a clean extension,” she said. “A clean extension is a vote against all of the people who have been left out.”

RECA has been in the spotlight lately. Several bills have been voted on in Congress; state-level politicians, senators and representatives are making repeated statements explaining their positions; President Joe Biden has signaled he would sign an expansion; and news outlets from The New York Times to local television stations are covering it.

Once that momentum is lost, Dickson said it will be gone forever.

“It would be hard to get where we are again. People burn out, this is hard work,” she said.

Dickson has been fighting for expanding compensation for 30 years. Although advocates are clinging to hope that the House could expand the program next week, she said it’s hard to stay optimistic.

“We can’t stop. We’ve come so far, we just can’t stop. It’s kind of our last hurrah, our last-ditch effort,” she said.

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