Downwinder groups blast Utah congressional delegation for opposing radiation compensation expansion

Utah congressional delegation’s RECA stance labeled a ‘moral failure’ by downwinder victims and their advocates.

FILE - In this April 22, 1952 file photo a gigantic pillar of smoke with the familiar mushroom top climbs above Yucca Flat, Nev. during nuclear test detonation. A defense spending bill pending in Congress includes an apology to New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and other states affected by nuclear testing over the decades, but communities downwind from the first atomic test in 1945 are still holding out for compensation amid rumblings about the potential for the U.S. to resume nuclear testing. (AP Photo,File)

As a longtime downwinder advocate, Mary Dickson is no stranger to the effects of harmful radiation caused by deadly radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing in Utah, Nevada and Arizona during the Cold War.

“Downwinders” is the term applied to the roughly 60,000 people, who were exposed to harmful radiation from nuclear bombs detonated at the Nevada Test Site during the 1950s and early 1960s. For Dickson, that total is not just a number.

It includes family and friends who have been afflicted with cancer and other diseases she attributes to radioactive fallout. It includes her older sister, who died from lupus, an autoimmune disease studies have linked to exposure to radiation, and a younger sister, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer. It also includes Dickson herself, who was in her 20s in 1985 when doctors discovered she had thyroid cancer.

Alas, Salt Lake County residents are not included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) that former U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch helped enact in 1990 to compensate fallout victims, despite a recent Princeton University study that found they were affected every bit as much as their southern Utah counterparts. And with RECA set to expire on June 7, even the victims covered by the legislation could soon be out of luck.

Fallout over anti-RECA expansion vote

That’s why Utah Downwinders, which counts Dickson as a member, and 19 other organizations have published an open letter — which the Union of Concerned Scientists paid for and ran in The Salt Lake Tribune – calling out members of the state’s congressional delegation for opposing a bill that would not only extend the program but also expand it to cover victims who are now excluded.

In March, the prospects for RECA expansion looked promising when the U.S. Senate passed a bill championed by Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley by a strong bipartisan 69-30 vote. The legislation would extend RECA by six years and expand coverage to anyone who became ill and was in Utah when nuclear testing took place.

Besides Utah, Hawley’s bill would expand RECA coverage to areas of Arizona and Nevada that are not covered under the current program. It also would extend coverage to eligible residents in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee and the U.S. Territory of Guam.

It would further double compensation to victims of nuclear fallout from $50,000 to $100,000, expand the current list of 19 diseases eligible for compensation, and extend coverage for people exposed to harmful radiation in uranium mines until 1990, nearly 20 years longer than the current 1971 timeframe.

In voting against the bill, Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney argued its estimated $50 billion cost was too high. That vote, along with the fact that RECA will sunset in less than a month, prompted downwinder groups to take action.

“... Senator Lee and other Utah members of congress have abandoned us,” downwinder groups state in the letter. “They refuse to support the necessary changes to RECA to ensure every exposed community in Utah gets the help they need. Instead, they propose that we just extend the program as-is.”

Dueling RECA bills

Rather than support Hawley’s legislation, Lee and Utah Rep. Celeste Maloy have introduced their own bill in the House and Senate that would extend RECA by two years but not expand the program beyond its current scope. Lee, who supported a two-year extension of RECA in 2022 has stated Hawley’s bill is not backed by sufficient data and is too costly.

A representative with Maloy’s office echoed Lee’s concerns, telling The Tribune that the current program has cost just over $2 billion and that supporting Hawley’s bill, which is currently languishing in the House of Representatives, would put getting a more modest two-year extension by the June 7 deadline at risk.

“Many Utahns were harmed by the federal government’s above-ground testing of nuclear weapons during the early atomic program, and decades later they, along with their families, are still paying a high price,” Maloy stated in a recent news release about her bill. “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. Congress cannot let RECA expire in June. That’s why I’m working with Senator Lee to ensure that downwinders continue to be covered.”

Dickson, who was sitting in the Senate gallery during the vote on Hawley’s bill, calls the Utah congressional delegation’s opposition heartbreaking and says its RECA stance smacks of political posturing.

“We’ve spent trillions of dollars on nuclear weapons since the Manhattan project … and yet they say, ‘Well, we don’t have enough money to help the people who are already harmed,’ " Dickson said, adding Lee’s position is especially ironic since he voted for the Trump tax cuts that the Congressional Budget Office projected cost nearly $2 trillion over 10 years.

“There’s enough money for corporations and billionaires but there’s not enough money to take care of our own people,” Dickson continued. “Our own congressional delegation has turned its back on us. They say they want to help downwinders but they are not helping all of us.”

Carmen Valdez, policy associate with the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah that also signed on to the open letter, said the suffering experienced by victims and their families more than justifies the additional expense.

“Increasing the lump-sum compensation to $100,000 for victims may seem like a large budget [expenditure], she said. “But to someone who is battling cancer, that’s nothing.”

‘A moral failure’

For her part, Dickson’s struggle with thyroid cancer years ago looms large in her memory.

“I underwent a thyroidectomy and radiation treatments,” she said. “On my hospital door and my hospital bracelet was the radiation symbol. I was the radioactive material. When I left the hospital, they burned my clothes and told me not to be around pregnant women or try to get pregnant for a year. Tumors on my ovaries and uterus a few years later meant that I never could have children.”

Nonetheless, Dickson counts herself lucky even though she knows her cancer – as has been the case with several of her friends – could come back at any time. That accounts for her longstanding efforts to help other downwinders get just compensation.

“My cousin always says to me, ‘Your story didn’t end tragically so you can carry that tragic story forward,’ " she said.

Dickson views Utah’s congressional delegation’s opposition to expanding the program to cover all victims as a “moral failure,” noting people are “dying while they keep delaying.”

Still, downwinder advocates’ first priority is to ensure the program survives beyond next month’s deadline and then to continue their push to eliminate coverage gaps in the program. Valdez is hopeful Congress will act soon to extend the program for another two years.

“But we feel that just pushes the can down the road,” she said.

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