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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Utah House Passes Resolution Asking Congress To Extend Radiation Compensation Act

A photo of a landscape.
The Center For Land Use Interpretation
The Mexican Hat Disposal Cell holds radioactive material from a uranium mill located nearby which operated from 1957 to 1965, and from another uranium mill site 15 miles southwest, near Monument Valley.

Utah lawmakers want Congress to extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA. It’s a federal program meant to help those suffering the effects of nuclear testing or uranium mining.

RECA is set to expire in 2022, despite ongoing radiation exposure and hundreds of pending claims.

Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, is sponsoring theresolution asking Congress to extend the act.

“It’s not an old, dead issue now,” Owens said. “There are still ongoing claims. There’s probably thousands of people out there who don’t know they have a claim yet or who should be entitled to compensation.”

According to federal data, around 7,000 Utahns have received over $400 millionthrough RECA since it was established in 1990. The program has paid out $2.5 billion in total to claimants throughout the U.S. and abroad. Right now, there are around 30 pending claims made by Utah residents.

A map of RECA covered areas.
U.S. Department of Justice.
The U.S. government has awarded 37,832 claims under RECA so far. There were 241 claims pending as of Dec. 2020.

RECA was expanded and extended in 2000 and covers people who worked in mines up to 1971, as well as those who lived in counties downwind from nuclear testing during the 1950s and 1960s.

Tommy Rock lives in Monument Valley and got his Ph.D. from Northern Arizona University. He studies uranium exposure on the Navajo Nation and said many Utah Navajos have been exposed to radiation.

“I remember hearing some elders from Navajo Mountain talk about how they witnessed ashes falling when the nuclear bombs were being tested in Nevada,” Rock said. “They talked about that as if it was snow.”

He said RECA helps Navajo people who develop cancer related to uranium exposure get treatments that are not provided by the Indian Health Service.

And uranium exposure is still occurring in Utah, according to Rock, who said there are a number of abandoned mines in Aneth and Monument Valley.

A map that shows abandoned uranium mines on and near the Navajo Nation.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
From 1944 to 1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands under leases with the Navajo Nation. There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines on the reservation.

“A lot of these areas in the past weren’t marked, so people who are unaware, like the newer generation, will come across it by accident,” he added.

There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines, as well as homes and water sources with elevated levels of radiation on the Navajo Nation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rep. Owens said there are a number of bills filed at the federal level to extend RECA and that his resolution does not address the need to expand the act.

“We’re not picking and choosing in those issues,” he said. “We’re just saying Congress needs to act on this. There’s still a need to compensate these injured individuals.”

The resolution has already passed the Utah House, and only four people voted against it. If it passes the Senate, Owens said he will take it to Utah’s congressional delegation and ask for their support.

Grand and San Juan Counties have both passed similar resolutions since the beginning of 2021.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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