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Orrin Hatch's Legacy: The Environment Becomes A Rallying Point Against 'Federal Overreach'

Renee Bright / KUER

Sen. Orrin Hatch will retire next month, winding down a political career spanning four decades ... longer than any elected official in Utah's history. The 84-year-old will likely be remembered for his role in bruising Supreme Court nomination battles, passing the Children's Health Insurance Program and funneling millions of dollars back to Utah.

But this week, KUER is remembering lesser known parts of Hatch's legacy. 


Few, if any, would call Orrin Hatch an environmentalist.

Even so, Utah’s senior senator, who retires next month after 42 years in the Senate, was a driving force on two seemingly opposite environmental issues — reparations for people exposed to radiation from atomic testing and other federal nuclear programs and downsizing a pair of national monuments in southern Utah.

The radiation compensation and the national monuments overlap in one important way for Hatch. In both cases, the environment gave him a way to right a perceived offense against Utah by the federal government.

“The nuclear testing was for military purposes, but it was still the federal government victimizing Utahns, and it could be argued that the monument designations were the same thing,” said LaVarr Webb, a publisher and longtime advisor to conservatives.

“Utah leaders were not given a voice,” he said. “It was the federal government imposing itself on Utah.”

Webb counts the radiation compensation to Downwinders and the shrunken monuments among the most important accomplishments of Hatch’s career in Washington.

The legislation he played a key role in passing, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, could be the biggest reparation of all time for environmental harm. To date, the federal government has paid $2.3 billion to 48,412 people.

Getting it passed required Hatch to team up with majority Democrats, including U.S. Reps. Wayne Owens of Utah and Stewart Udall of Arizona.

Lawmakers had been hearing stories like Ilene Hacker’s since before Hatch became a senator in 1977.

The federal government conducted above-ground tests on atomic bombs between 1951 and 1962 at the Nevada Test Site. Hacker, who grew up in St. George, and others who lived just across the border in Utah would watch the mushroom clouds and were not warned about the potential harm of the radioactive dust that would fall from the sky onto their livestock pastures and gardens and into the streams that supplied water for their crops, their livestock and themselves.

A new mother at the time, she was devastated to learn that her 48-year-old father, Orville Wardle, was dying of cancer. Until then, he’d been hale and hardy, working in construction throughout southern Utah.

“We were expendable to our government,” she toldUniversity of Utah historians last year. “We were guinea pigs.”

Credit Office of Sen. Orrin Hatch
Sen. Orrin Hatch for RECA, which was passed in 1990.

With the passage of the bipartisan RECA in 1990, Downwinders were eligible for payments of $50,000 if they could prove they lived in certain counties during the testing and suffered from certain illnesses, such as pancreatic cancer, leukemia and breast cancer.

After Hacker’s father died in 1978, Hacker helped her mother get the $50,000 RECA payment on behalf of her father. The program was so complicated, it took seven attempts. But Hacker was determined to get retribution.

“That money is nothing - it’s nothing to us,” Hacker told the U historians. “I was just determined that that was going to be something, in a way, that they said, ‘We know. We admit we did it, and we did it to your dad’.

Over the years, Hatch would fight to sufficiently fund RECA. He also pushed to expand redress for radiation exposure. The compensation eventually became available to people in parts of 11 western states, and those who mined, shipped and processed uranium, as well as atomic-energy site workers.

Kenley Brunsdale, who got to know Hatch while working on RECA for the late Congressman Owens, said he never got the sense that the senator had deep personal feelings about the environment — even when it came to Downwinders. Instead, Brunsdale said, the senator’s interest was political.

“I think the [conservative political] base that would have supported Orrin Hatch over the years would have been predominantly opposed to a lot of the environmental issues that Wayne, for example, championed on the other side,” he said.

That seems to be reflected in Hatch’s lifetime voting record, according to a tallyby the League of Conservation Voters in Washington. The group, which scores members of Congress on their voting records, said Hatch had only cast pro-environment votes 10 percent of the time on 494 key votes during his 42 years in the Senate. For 2017, Hatch received a score of 0.

Hatch’s efforts on the Utah national monuments is an example of why he’s gotten such low ratings. Hatch’s focus was curbing what he called “federal overreach,” the creation of the Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Credit League of Conservation Voters.
In 2017, the penultimate year of Sen. Orrin Hatch's tenure in office, Republicans in the Senate voted in favor of the environment just one percent of the time based on the League of Conservation Voters criteria.

Hatch began working with President Donald Trump to eliminate or scale back the monuments shortly after the 2016 election. Immediately after Hatch helped Trump line up votes for the crowning achievement of his presidency, last year’s tax bill, Trump came to Utah to shrink the two national monuments that had conservative Utahns rankled.

“I want to thank the president for giving a voice to the hard-working people of Utah, who for too long have been ignored in the debate over public lands,” said Hatch.

In the end, the senator’s environmental legacy has little to do with protecting Utah’s landscape. It’s really about preserving his bond with certain Utahns, the kind of conservative voters who sent him to Washington again and again.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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