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Navajo Nation prods Utah’s delegation to expand radiation-exposure compensation

A screengrab from President Buu Nygren's video statement on the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act released by the Navajo Nation Washington Office, April 18, 2024.
Navajo Nation Washington Office
A screengrab from President Buu Nygren's video statement on the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act released by the Navajo Nation Washington Office, April 18, 2024.

Utahns affected by the nation’s World War II and Cold War nuclear weapons testing and uranium mining could soon lose government-provided compensation. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act will sunset June 10.

There are efforts to keep RECA going, but not everyone is on the same page about its future.

After the law was established in 1990, $2.4 billion in benefits has been paid out to more than 38,000 people across the West. People present in counties in states surrounding the Nevada Test Site are known as “downwinders,” many of whom live in Utah.

Utah’s Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, as well as Reps. Celeste Maloy and Burgess Owens, are co-sponsoring a two-year extension of the law. In a statement, Maloy said even decades after above-ground nuclear testing ended in 1962, downwinders and their families “are still paying a high price.”

“RECA was created as a way for the federal government to partially compensate Americans who have developed certain cancers and diseases as a result of being downwind from nuclear testing and exposed to radiation,” she said. “Congress cannot let RECA expire in June.”

A different bill, however, from Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley expands coverage to more beneficiaries. It has already passed the Senate with bipartisan support and awaits a vote in the House.

“If [Hawley’s bill] was brought to the floor for a vote today, I am more than confident it would be passed,” said Navajo Nation Washington Office Executive Director Justin Ahasteen.

The Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, strongly supports Hawley’s bill. On April 18, President Buu Nygren called on Congress to pass “more than a simple extension of RECA, we need expansion to help those affected.”

“The Senate has voted to update [RECA], yet Utah’s representatives have disappointed us,” Nygren said in a released video statement.

Ahasteen said the Nation wants the program to be expanded to cover uranium workers after 1971, which is the current cutoff date for uranium miners, mill workers and ore transporters who seek compensation for illnesses linked to their radiation exposure.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 30 million tons of uranium ore was mined in the Navajo Nation between 1944 and 1986.

“After 1971, the uranium industry didn't die, it was privatized,” Ahasteen said. “That's really why we've been pushing this.”

The 1971 cutoff date could prevent thousands of affected members of the Navajo Nation from obtaining coverage, Ahasteen said. For him, the Utah-backed bill is a distraction.

We hope that it doesn't take priority over the Hawley bill because [that bill] passed the Senate,” Ahasteen said. “It got a commitment by President Biden that he will sign it once it gets to his desk. It's 75% of the way there.”

The Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah is also pushing to expand RECA to cover more people outside of the original geographic boundaries in southern Utah.

“What we've been working for for decades is to get the thing expanded,” downwinder advocate Mary Dickson said.

As a matter of disclosure: Dickson is a former employee of PBS Utah, KUER’s sister station at the University of Utah, and currently hosts the program Contact.

“Northern Utah isn't even included. So to me, they are ignoring and betraying their constituents because northern Utah will not be added. A mere extension is not the answer. The answer is to expand it.”

When it comes to why the Utah delegation wants an extension over an expansion of the program, Maloy’s staff said the congresswoman’s first priority is to extend RECA before the sunset date. Since Hawley’s bill includes a significant expansion, it is unlikely to get enough traction in the House. But Maloy is not opposed to expansion or further negotiations.

The rationale is similar for Sens. Lee and Romney. Both said their concerns are rooted in what the expansion would cost and they were no votes on Hawley’s bill in the Senate.

Lee’s Communications Director, Billy Gribbin, said the expansion “stretches the program to include wide geographic areas it was not intended to cover, without sufficient data, and would spend an additional $50 billion in taxpayer dollars without a pay-for to offset the cost to American taxpayers.”

“Sen. Lee doesn’t want to endanger the RECA program by changing it so drastically, potentially diverting resources from Utahns who deserve compensation.”

A spokesperson for Romney cited similar reasons.

“[Hawley’s bill] drastically expanded the eligibility for benefits beyond the geographic center of the federal government’s Nevada Test Site and the list of diseases covered by RECA,” they said. “Without clear evidence linking previous government action to the expanded list of illnesses, and a price tag north of $50 billion, Sen. Romney could not support the legislation.”

With a June deadline fast approaching, advocates like Dickson say they’ll only feel good about an extension if a commitment to increase the scope of RECA in the future is also included.

Unless they commit to that and go on record with that, it doesn't give me any hope, she said.”

Intermountain Health is holding downwinder information sessions in southern Utah to discuss the bills in Congress. Both are on April 20 at the Kanab and Hurricane public libraries.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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