‘It has to happen’: Bill extending compensation for ‘downwinders’ reintroduced to Congress

ST. GEORGE — A program compensating individuals impacted by exposure to radiation from nuclear weapons testing and uranium mining during the Cold War is set to end next year unless Congress acts to extend it.

Public domain image from Operation Buster-Jangle – Dog test, Nevada, Nov. 1, 1951 | St. George News

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), was passed in 1990 to help individuals determined to have developed illnesses and cancers connected to exposure to the fallout of nuclear bomb testing at places like the Nevada Test Site between the 1940s and 60s.

During those tests, the wind carried radiation hundreds of miles away from the testing sites, exposing people in the surrounding areas to unsafe levels of radiation.

Individuals impacted by the fallout have become known as “Downwinders,” and are compensated under the RECA which is set to expire in July 2022. Efforts to extend the program’s life have been ongoing, with the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 2021, being the latest attempt.

Currently under RECA, downwinders who suffered from certain cancers and illnesses and who lived for a certain time frame in one of just 22 rural counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona are covered. Studies conducted since RECA was originally passed have shown that radioactive fallout from nuclear testing went far beyond those 22 counties, with Western states heavily impacted, according to a press release from Downwinders, Inc.

The U.S. tested over 1,000 nuclear weapons between 1945 and 1992, according to the Associated Press.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah. Owens is among the members of Congress who support the extension of the RECA program, location and date of photo unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Office of Rep. Burgess Owens, St. George News

A bill introduced earlier this week in Congress aims to amend the RECA to not only extend another 19 years, but also expand compensation to downwinders in areas to Idaho, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Guam, and all of Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, which were shown to have received high levels of fallout from nuclear testing, including from the Trinity Test and tests in the Pacific.

The bill extending and expanded RECA is sponsored by Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho and Ben Lujan, D-N.M., and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-N.M. Counted among the bill’s cosponsors is Utah Republican Rep. Burgess Owens.

“Radiation exposure caused by the U.S. atomic weapon development program forever destroyed lives and livelihoods in Utah,” Owens said in a press release from his office. “It has been over twenty years since any meaningful reform to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act – now is the time for the federal government to renew its support and right these wrongs.”

This July 16, 1945, file photo shows an aerial view after the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site, N.M. Western governors say atmospheric nuclear weapons testing exposed more states and more people to radiation fallout and resulting cancers and other diseases than the federal government recognizes. | Photo courtesy of The Associated Press, St. George News

Under the current RECA program, downwinders are eligible for a one-time compensation of up to $50,000; military and civilian participants of onsite nuclear testing can get up to $75,000; and uranium miners and ore transporters who worked in the industry between 1941-71 can get up to $100,000.

The new bill would raise compensation to $150,000 for all claimants. Other updates to the bill include expanding coverage to Guam and Trinity downwinders. While studies have shown the increased incidence of leukemia downwind of the Trinity site in New Mexico, downwinders of that first nuclear test in 1945 have never been included.

“RECA was never comprehensive enough,” Mary Dickson, a Salt Lake City downwinder and long-time advocate for downwinders, said in a press release from Downwinders, Inc. “We applaud the work of Senators Crapo and Lujan and Representative Fernandez who recognize how their constituents have suffered. … We greatly appreciate Rep. Burgess Owens, who signed on as a co-sponsor of the House bill. We hope the rest of our Utah congressional delegation will be fully supportive of these RECA bills which greatly impact their constituents.”

In this file photo, L-R: Commissioners Gil Almquist and Dean Cox talk in between photos being taken at the swearing in of newly elected and re-election county officials. Cox was diagnose with multiple myeloma in 2019, which is classified as a downwinder illness. He died in July 2021, photo taken St. George, Utah, Jan. 7, 2019 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The program also funds local health centers and nonprofit organizations to conduct cancer screenings and support individuals in filing RECA claims. One such clinic is located at the St. George Regional Hospital.

“It must be extended,” Washington County Commission Chair Gil Almquist said Friday. “What’s happened to these people is real. It happened to my great friend Dean Cox.”

Cox, a well known and beloved Washington County resident and county commissioner, died in July. He was diagnosed in 2019 with multiple myeloma, a cancer that attacks bone marrow. The cancer is one of the conditions listed under the RECA as being a downwinder illness, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Under the proposed amendments, additional illnesses will be added to the compensation eligibility list.

“It has to happen,” Almquist repeated, concerning the efforts to extend the RECA.

The effort to extend the RECA has been ongoing for several years now. In 2019, then Utah Gov. Gary Herbert joined other Western governors in supporting the proposed extension and expansion of the program.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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