Mary Dickson: Bill may be the last chance to help Utah Downwinders

Many people suffering from diseases causes by nuclear tests and uranium mining still need nation’s assistance.

AP photo In this April 22, 1952, photo, a gigantic pillar of smoke with the familiar mushroom top climbs above Yucca Flat, Nev. during nuclear test detonation.

Bipartisan agreement is hard to come by these days. But bills introduced in the Senate and the House could make a huge difference for those of us who are survivors of nuclear testing and have suffered deadly health effects for years.

The legislation introduced by Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Ben Lujan, D- New Mexico, and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-New Mexico — who have championed downwind communities and nuclear testing survivors — would extend and expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which provides compensation to people who likely developed cancer and other diseases due to exposure to radioactive fallout from testing or uranium mining.

Without congressional action, RECA will expire in less than a year, even though people are still getting sick, suffering health complications, their cancers are returning and they are saddled with huge medical bills.

With bipartisan support in the House and Senate, the legislation would extend the time frame for compensation by 19 years, cover Downwinders in all of Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Colorado and Guam and increase compensation from $50,000 to $150,000. This extension and expansion would help ensure that people made sick by nuclear testing and uranium mining have ample time to receive compensation — a process that can take years.

RECA, largely for political reasons, has always been extremely limited in scope compared to the actual number of civilians likely impacted by nuclear testing. It provides compensation to Downwinders who live in rural counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona, although studies conducted since its original passage show that radioactive fallout went far beyond the 22 counties now covered, affecting countless people in western states. Northern Utah, including Salt Lake City, Provo and, are not covered under RECA although those areas were as hard hit by fallout and thousands of people have died or been sickened as a result.

I like to remind people how smoke from the fires in California blanketed Utah, Montana, Wyoming and other states. The winds in the U.S. blow westerly, sending smoke that darkened our skies. The same winds carried radioactive fallout though, unlike smoke, that invisible poison entered our bodies without us even knowing.

Utah also has a long history of uranium mining including on Navajo Nation land. While RECA covers some uranium workers, it has always excluded those who worked in the industry after 1971. These bills would fix that.

I applaud the work of Crapo, Lujan and Fernandez, who recognize how their own constituents as well as residents of surrounding states have suffered. As Downwinders, we have waited years for justice. For many it is already too late. Too many have died, and too many of us have buried and mourned the dead. It is urgent that Congress does the right thing and pass these bills so that justice is served for American citizens who were harmed by nuclear testing and uranium mining.

Utah Downwinders greatly appreciate Reps. Burgess Owens and Chris Stewart, both Utah Republicans, who co-sponsored the House bill — HR 5338. We plan to meet with the rest of our delegation to seek their support and co-sponsorship on behalf of Utah’s many Downwinders.

This may be one of those rare issues that both parties can agree upon. If you believe that our nation should take care of those who were harmed by nuclear testing, I urge you to contact your representative and Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee to ask them to support the Senate version of the bill — S2798.

This may be our last chance.

Mary Dickson

Salt Lake City writer and Downwinder Mary Dickson, Salt Lake City, is a long-time advocate for Downwinders who has written and spoken extensively on the human toll of nuclear testing.