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Politics & Government

More Utahns Who Were Harmed By Nuclear Testing Could See Federal Relief Money Under New Bill

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“People are still getting sick,” said Mary Dickson, an advocate for downwinders. “They're still suffering complications. It's a story that's definitely not over. It's time that we do right by the many people harmed by exposure.” A photo of a 37-kiloton balloon shot fired at the Nevada Test Site in 1957.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-UT, is co-sponsoring a new bill in Congress that would expand who’s eligible for relief money after being exposed to fallout from nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s.

People anywhere in Utah who got cancer or other diseases from nuclear fallout would be eligible under the bill. Right now, it is just for southern Utah. The bill also extends the deadline to apply by roughly 18 years and triples the amount of money people can get. Currently, the program is set to expire next year and people can get up to $50,000.

Mary Dickson grew up near Parleys Canyon in Salt Lake City in the 1950s and 60s and is an advocate for so-called “downwinders” — people who were exposed to radiation from nuclear testing. Dickson said she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in her 20s and attributes that to radiation exposure.

“I had a sister who died of lupus, another sister who has cancer, and yet another sister who has autoimmune diseases,” she said. “My sister who died and I counted 54 people in our childhood neighborhood — like a five block area — who had various cancers, tumors and autoimmune disorders. And we figured something happened to us.”

But Dickson and her old neighbors haven’t been able to access any relief money.

“People are still getting sick,” she said. “They're still suffering complications. It's a story that's definitely not over. It's time that we do right by the many people harmed by exposure.”

Improved science is one reason lawmakers see a need to expand who’s eligible, according to Robert Forbis, an environmental policy expert at the University of Utah.

“It's a matter of the science getting better to collect the data that demonstrates that causal link,” he said. “The other thing [is] there's a heightened awareness of the issues that were not of the time of the original legislation's passage.”

More than $400 million has been paid out to over 7,000 Utahns through the federal program so far.

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