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Federal program to compensate downwinders expires after Republicans block it

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Federal program to compensate downwinders expires after Republicans block it

Jun 07, 2024 | 7:12 pm ET
By Shondiin Silversmith
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Federal program to compensate downwinders expires after Republicans block it
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A fireball rises into the sky over Nevada after the U.S. government detonated a 61-kiloton device on June 4, 1953. Nuclear weapons experiments at the Nevada Test Site spread fallout to other states, including Arizona, research and records show. (Getty Images)

Kathleen Tsosie was in Washington, D.C., mere weeks ago, advocating for expanding the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, sharing her story about growing up in the Navajo Nation in hopes of getting congressional leaders to support the program known as RECA.

Tsosie’s father, grandfather, and uncles all worked as uranium miners on the Navajo Nation near Cove, Arizona, from the 1940s to the 1960s. Her family has been harmed by the effects of radiation and mining for generations. 

RECA is a program that compensates individuals who become ill because of exposure to radiation from the aftermath of the United States’ development and testing of nuclear weapons, including uranium mining.

She witnessed her grandfather and father suffer from cancer, and eventually, she felt their suffering when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

“People are still dying,” Tsosie said. “People are still sick, and they’re still fighting.”

Tsosie and many others shared their experiences with congressional leaders about growing up and living in communities deeply affected by the government’s actions.

“They saw the emotions,” she said. “They heard it.”

However, it wasn’t enough to sway congressional leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives to hear and vote for a bill extending and expanding the RECA program past its sunset date. The program officially expired on June 7.

After decades of existence, RECA’s end leaves thousands of people impacted by the aftermath of nuclear testing with no access to health screenings or financial reimbursement for medical debt from radiation-related illnesses. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley introduced S. 3853 – The Radiation Exposure Compensation Reauthorization Act, which would fund RECA for another six years. The bill passed the U.S. Senate on a bipartisan 69-30 vote on March 7. However, it hasn’t moved in the U.S. House of Representatives.

House Speaker Mike Johnson and Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) reversed their support for RECA at the end of May. GOP objections centered on the costs of expanding the program. No further discussion of RECA has occurred in the House, despite calls from their Missouri Republican colleagues for a standalone vote to keep it.

“I’m very disappointed in our government and especially our local elected officials,” said Ken Davis, an Arizonan who grew up downwind from the Nevada Test Site. 

“We sent them to Washington to represent us,” Davis said. “They have failed.”

Ken Davis and his wife, Rita, grew up in Camp Verde, in Yavapai County. He recalled how it was common knowledge among people living in the Verde Valley that there was the potential of getting sick because they lived downwind from the Nevada Test Site.

“We were both exposed back in the ’50s and the ’60s,” Davis previously told the Arizona Mirror. Rita developed breast cancer and died at the age of 66 in 2020. He blames radiation exposure, though proving that is often near impossible, experts say.

From 1945 to 1992, the U.S. conducted a total of 1,030 nuclear tests, according to the Arms Control Association.

Many of these nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site, with 928 nuclear tests conducted at the site between 1951 and 1992, according to the Nevada National Security Site, about 100 of which were atmospheric and 828 underground.

According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, atmospheric tests involved unrestrained releases of radioactive materials directly into the environment, causing the largest collective dose of radiation thus far from man-made radiation sources.

The U.S. Department of Justice will accept RECA applications postmarked by June 10.

Navajo leaders express disappointment in RECA expiration

The Navajo Nation has been vocal in its support of the expansion and extension of the RECA program because of the long legacy of uranium mining that continues to plague the Navajo people and their land.

Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley said it is disappointing to see RECA expire, but the fight is not over. 

“The Navajo Nation fully supports the expansion and extension of RECA and we will continue to press our congressional delegation to step up and fight for our Navajo people, who showed their unwavering commitment to this country during the Cold War,” she said in a statement to the Mirror.

In recent months, Curley said she has stood shoulder to shoulder with victims and advocates on Capitol Hill, calling on congressional leaders to act. 

“Time is up and we need Speaker Johnson to bring the RECA expansion and extension bill before the House for a vote,” she added.

The legacy of uranium mining has impacted the Navajo Nation for decades, from abandoned mines to contaminated waste disposal. 

From 1944 to 1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands, according to the EPA, and hundreds of Navajo people worked in the mines, often living and raising families near the mines and mills. 

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren said he is “gravely disappointed” at Johnson’s failure to act and allowing RECA to lapse. 

“This inaction is an egregious injustice to the Navajo people who continue to suffer from the devastating health and environmental impacts of uranium mining,” Nygren said in a statement to the Mirror. “An expansion of RECA, not just an extension, is necessary to bring justice and hope to Navajo families.”

As of December 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that 7,704 claims from tribal citizens representing 24 tribal nations had been filed with the RECA program, 5,310 had been granted and more than $362.5 million had been awarded. 

Navajo people make up 86% of the claimants, according to the DOJ, and they have received awards totaling more than $297 million.

RECA’s downwind affected area covers land within multiple federally recognized tribal nations, including the Navajo, Hopi, and White Mountain Apache. 

“In allowing RECA to expire, Speaker Johnson has not only betrayed our veterans and blue-collar uranium miners and their families, who were unwitting victims of our nation’s nuclear weapons program, but has profoundly wronged the Navajo people who have given so much to this country,” Justin Ahasteen, the executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, said in a statement to the Mirror.

“The government made a sacred promise to care for those harmed by its nuclear actions,” Ahasteen added. “By abandoning this commitment, Speaker Johnson has chosen to value dollars and cents over the lives and well-being of our people.”