• June 22nd, 2024
  • Saturday, 11:10:57 PM

It’s Time to Fight for a More-Inclusive RECA


A May 16 rally featuring New Mexico Democrats Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, at the lectern, and Sen. Ben Ray Luján, and Guam’s Republican House delegate, James Moylan, along with advocates push for RECA expansion and extension. (Photo: Ashley Murray/States Newsroom)

 

By Danielle Prokop

Posted June 6, 2024

 

Republican House leadership flip-flopped on a program to compensate people the federal government exposed to radiation, as advocates held their stance that now is the best chance to adopt an expansion in the program.

 

On May 29, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana) and Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-California) announced they intended to only continue the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act for two years and would not support adding people from Missouri, New México and elsewhere.

 

In a statement, Johnson said he would not support the expansion passed by the Senate because it was too expensive and didn’t include enough support from the Senate GOP.

 

“Unfortunately, the current Senate bill is estimated to cost $50-60 billion in new mandatory spending with no offsets and was supported by only 20 of 49 Republicans in the Senate,” a spokesperson for the Speaker’s office gave to Source NM.

 

Then, Johnson and Scalise walked back the decision to keep RECA as is and pulled a motion from the House calendar on May 29, citing conversations with Rep. Anne Wagner (R-Missouri).

 

In the last two years, we’ve lost so many people. What’s worse is that more people are dying all the time, waiting.”
Tina Cordova, RECA Activist

 

However, it’s unclear from Johnson’s statements if any vote will be held on RECA before the fund is set to expire on June 10. His office did not respond to follow up questions clarifying his position on RECA.

 

Advocates meanwhile are reframing this latest hurdle as another opportunity that could actually lead to New Mexicans and others across the country joining the RECA program and receive some justice for the generational harms caused by the U.S. atomic program.

 

What is at stake

 

Adopted in 1990, RECA is a fund set up by the federal government to pay lump-sum payments for people exposed to radiation and their descendents during decades of above-ground nuclear tests in the American West.

 

Currently, the program only applies to uranium workers before 1971. It also helps civilians in specific counties of Utah, Arizona and Nevada and federal workers at nuclear test sites.

A lot of people remain excluded.

 

This includes St. Louis communities used as dumping grounds for Manhattan Project Waste, Southern New Mexicans who lived near the Trinity Site, uranium workers after 1971 or the others livingdownwind” of nuclear testing sites.

 

These communities, while experiencing cancers, diseases, deaths and more, have been neither recognized, nor compensated.

 

Their chance to be recognized is held in proposed legislation before the House which seeks to increase the scope and life of the program.

 

  1. 3853 which passed the Senate in a 69-30 vote in March was carried by Missouri and New México Congressmembers. The bill would incorporate the entire states of Nevada, Utah and Arizona, and further expands RECA to cover people in Idaho, Montana, Colorado, New México and Guam. Uranium workers and their descendants on the Navajo Nation and Laguna Pueblo who worked after 1971 would also then be eligible for lump-sum payments for health care.

 

House Speaker plays reverse card

 

The reversal by Rep. Johnson exposes a tension: do advocates who’ve been fighting for inclusion opt to keep the current limited program, or continue to fight for expansion?

 

It’s time to fight for a more-inclusive RECA, said Tina Cordova, a longtime advocate for Southern New Mexicans and their families suffering from radiation exposure after the first nuclear test at the Trinity Site.

 

“That two-year extension was going to do nothing, but take away that momentum we’ve built,” she said.

 

Advocates accepted a two-year extension of the program in 2022, she said, because there didn’t feel like a better alternative. She said with bipartisan support, the stakes are higher in 2024.

 

“We can’t allow them to pass an extension and think they’re going to move us along,” she said. We knew what it was, it’s a further extension of the injustice done to so many people.”

 

Cordova, a cancer survivor, said that while the RECA fund is set to expire in June, that lawmakers said they can offer small extensions while negotiating the expansion under the Senate bill.

 

“In the last two years, we’ve lost so many people,” she said. “What’s worse is that more people are dying all the time, waiting.”

 

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.) told Source NM on May 29 that Johnson’s move to pull the extension bill that excluded so many was the right thing. But that view relies on the House bringing forward the expansion proposal passed by the Senate.

 

“Let’s vote on the bipartisan expansion bill that gives all victims of radiation exposure compensation before any more die,” Leger Fernández said in a statement.

 

Leger Fernández said Johnson’s focus on costs ignores the injustice of harms caused by building and testing nuclear bombs, in New Mexico and elsewhere.

 

“Continuously pointing to the bill’s cost without good-faith negotiations is an additional insult on top of denying justice to radiation-exposed victims,” she wrote.

 

Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said on May 28, that Congress cannot let the RECA program expire.

 

“The Tularosa downwinders and uranium miners have experienced the real-life costs of radiation exposure for generations. They don’t need lectures now on ‘costs’ from House Republicans; they need RECA reauthorized and expanded,” Heinrich said in a written statement. “It’s long overdue for the House to take up and pass our legislation to get this done.”

 

Recently, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) brought forward an extension which would have admitted New Mexico and Missouri communities into the program. It failed after the objections of Republican Sen. Josh Hawley from Missouri and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who co-sponsored the RECA expansion bill.

 

“I want to be clear. I will not consent to any short-term stopgap, any half- way measure. I will not give my consent to it,” Hawley said on the floor.

 

Luján said Lee’s bill was an “attempt to undermine the strong bipartisan coalition,” which passed the RECA expansion, and said he believed there was support in the House.

 

Downwinders from Utah and beyond criticized Lee’s bill, saying that lawmakers were denying fallout had affected constituents across the state.

 

After the measure’s failure, Lee said “We have got to deal with this. I will be back.”

 

Cordova said she fully supported Luján and Hawley’s rejection of RECA expanding to only New Mexico and Missouri in Lee’s proposal, saying it is a point of solidarity with other downwinders.

 

“I fully trust that we will get the extension in the end, if necessary,” she said.

 

In a statement, Adán Serna, spokesperson for Luján said the Senator is considering “all possible options” to keep the RECA program alive, including potentially bringing an extension.

 

But focus is on what the House will do with the Senate legislation.

 

“The best possible option to strengthen RECA and provide justice for victims is for the House to pass the standalone bill,” Serna said.

 

Danielle Prokop is a Reporter with Source New Mexico. This

article is republished from Source New Mexico under a Creative Commons license. Source New Mexico is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.