Bipartisan bill would compensate more downwinders

Politics » Legislation covers people affected in seven states.
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People throughout seven Western states --- including anywhere in Utah -- who were exposed to radiation from atomic testing and the uranium industry would be eligible for government compensation, under proposed new congressional legislation.

Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, has lined up support from Republicans and fellow Democrats for his bill to update the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, the measure championed exactly two decades ago by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. A House version of the bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, is expected to be introduced later this week.

And, while the possible expansion of RECA is being applauded by many of Utah's "downwinders," as the radiation-exposed group calls itself, neither Hatch nor fellow Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett are listed as co-sponsors of Udall's bill.

"Uranium and weapons development of the Cold War era left a gruesome legacy in communities of mine workers and downwinders," said Udall, noting the past effort to "compensate in some way for the resultant sickness and loss of life."

"Today we are taking the next step to close this sad chapter in history and improve the reach of compassionate compensation to those Americans who have suffered but have not qualified under RECA in its current form."

To date, the federal government has paid nearly $1.5 billion to more than 22,000 people who were downwind of atomic testing in certain Arizona, Utah and Nevada counties, who participated in the weapons tests, who transported uranium ore or who mined or milled uranium.

Currently, eligibility in Utah is limited to those suffering lung, breast, colon, ovarian or certain other cancers who were exposed to fallout while living in Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard, Piute, San Juan, Sevier, Washington or Wayne counties. Under the proposal, the entire state would be covered.

Efforts to reach Bennett were unsuccessful. Hatch, meanwhile, noted his past role in advancing the original bill and in expanding its benefits to additional groups.

"While I certainly support many of the goals of Senator Udall's bill, particularly the expansion of the RECA program to assist those who were harmed," he said Tuesday, "I fear it is overly broad and prohibitively expensive."

J. Preston Truman, a founder of the Downwinders advocacy group, said he was pleased the issue is coming to the forefront once again. He said the updated compensation law will motivate people whose exposure to radiation was worse than his own, people who lived in central Montana and in Idaho, for instance, to become active in pushing for the bill.

"If constituents demand it, then politicians in the end have to listen," Truman said. Born and raised in Washington County, he has suffered from lymphoma and is eligible for RECA but has never applied.

"The victims of this testing have waited years for just compensation," said Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, whose state received some of the heaviest fallout. "And the cruel irony is that the federal government has postponed action for so long that many aren't living to see this bill passed."

Salt Lake City resident Mary Dickson noted that downwinders have pushed for improvements to the legislation for a long time.

"Now we finally have a chance," she said.

Dickson's 2007 play, "Exposed," told the story of how she made the connection between her own exposure to fallout as a child growing up in Salt Lake County and the thyroid cancer that struck her in her 20s.

Under the current RECA, she is ineligible for compensation. But under Udall's bill, she would be. Still, she said, the most important part of the push to expand RECA is the recognition it offers to the many people who have suffered from radiation exposure but have not been acknowledged previously.

"It was not just this tiny corner of the West" that was exposed, she said. "It affected the whole West and the whole country."

A new bill would broaden Radiation Exposure Compensation Act:

» expand eligibility to people from the entire states of New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Nevada, as well as people upwind of tests in Guam.

» increase compensation uniformly to $150,000 for all three classes of downwinders.

» make workers exposed from 1971 to 1990 eligible to apply.

» authorizing $3 million for epidemiological research on workers and downwinders.

» provide medical benefits for all downwinders, not just workers.