• February 25th, 2024
  • Sunday, 04:10:55 PM

RECA Expansion Cut From Latest Defense Bill Compromise


Tina Cordova, a founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, protests at the Trinity site on Oct. 21, 2023. / Tina Cordova, una de las fundadoras del Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, protesta en las instalaciones de Trinity el 21 de octubre de 2023. (Foto: Source New Mexico)

 

By Danielle Prokop

 

Negotiators struck an expansion of a fund to compensate people harmed by radiation from the federal government’s testing of atomic weapons.

 

The provision taken out of the compromise version of the $866 billion national defense budget bill would have recognized, for the first time, communities around the Tularosa Basin where the first atomic bomb was dropped at the Trinity Site test in 1945.

 

It would have expanded to others across the country who have previously been excluded from coverage under the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act (nicknamed RECA).

 

Congress took that off the table for now and without an extension, the RECA fund currently expires in July 2024.

 

Advocates who have fought for decades for recognition called the news a setback.

 

“I think it’s shockingly immoral that Congress believes the U.S. government can harm citizens and basically walk away from any responsibility,” said Tina Cordova, the founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium.

 

For 13 years, Cordova and the group representing Southern New Mexicans and their descendants who have suffered impacts since the detonation at the Trinity Site have been fighting for recognition by the federal government.

 

She said the defense bill amendment meant “they were closer than ever,” but that the coalition with members across the western U.S. and Guam will continue efforts to pass a new bill that gives them recognition for harms caused by the U.S. atomic programs.

 

“We’ve been in this fight too long to give up, and there’ll come a day when we see victory,” she said.

 

“It’s a step back, but it’s certainly not the end,” said Susan Gordon, the coordinator for the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment. The group represents five organizations addressing the impacts of uranium mining in western New México, Laguna Pueblo and the Navajo Nation.

 

I think it’s shockingly immoral that Congress believes the U.S. government can harm citizens and basically walk away from any responsibility”.
Tina Cordova, Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium

 

Gordon said that more RECA recognition, and additional Republican support in the Senate means she’s “hopeful” an extension or expansion can be passed in the future.

 

The stakes are high since people are sick and dying from diseases after radiation exposure, Gordon said.

 

“This is very personal to our members,” Gordon said. “It has to be passed, we have to provide justice to the citizens who worked to support the U.S. nuclear weapons program.”

 

The Senate passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act with a RECA amendment in July.

 

The 29-page amendment extended the RECA fund for another 19 years.

 

  •   In addition, people living in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New México, Utah and Guam would qualify for lump-sum payments.
  •   It would extend to cover uranium miners working until 1990, instead of limiting coverage to people working in 1971 and earlier.
  •   It would allow payments to people and descendants in parts of St. Louis County, which was contaminated with nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project.
  •   It would have recognized, after 78 years, people in New Mexico exposed to radiation from the first nuclear blast at the Trinity Site.

An October report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, estimated the new benefits for Missouri would cost $3.7 billion between 2024 and 2033 while the expansion of the Downwinder status and uranium mining would cost $143.4 billion over the same time.

 

Since the bill was different from the version passed by the House, it required a conference committee.

 

That group met for negotiations starting in November and released the full compromise legislation for the National Defense Authorization Act, on Dec. 6.

 

Senators who added the amendment said they failed and felt betrayed.

 

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, who introduced multiple bills to extend RECA in recent years, blamed Republican leadership in the House.

 

“Despite bipartisan support, Republican leadership blocked inclusion of this critical provision in the NDAA,” Luján wrote in a statement on Dec 7. “By doing so, they failed to do right by the people the government harmed.”

 

Luján concluded by saying “our support has only grown, and the fight doesn’t end here.”

 

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, who introduced identical legislation in the House, called the omission “absolutely outrageous.”

 

“Downwinders and uranium workers suffer from debilitating and deadly diseases related to building and testing nuclear bombs,” Leger Fernández wrote in a statement. “Our bipartisan coalition will not give up — we will fight to pass RECA and secure justice for our beloved New México communities who unknowingly sacrificed so much for our nation’s security.”

 

Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, who joined Luján and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) on the RECA push, called it a “major betrayal” in a social media post, and said he would not vote for the compromise legislation.

 

The reconciled legislation still faces a final vote in both chambers.

 

RECA refresher

 

Originally passed in 1990, the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act (RECA) established a fund to offer payment and apology for exposing workers and the public to harm from work extracting uranium, and decades of above-ground nuclear tests in the American West and Pacific Islands.

 

The fund was an alternative to a slew of lawsuits. It does not require people to prove they were exposed, but instead, people qualify if they have certain diagnoses of listed diseases from working in designated places over specific periods of time.

 

RECA was limited to a handful of counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona. It’s meant for certain uranium miners, millers and transporters, and people present at weapons test sites.

 

Many people who live in communities “downwind” of sites were not covered by the federal fund but still felt harmful health impacts, including New Mexicans exposed during the Trinity test.

 

Since 1990, the fund has paid out $2.6 billion.

 

 

Daniella Prokop is a Reporter with Source New Mexico. This article is republished from Source New Mexico under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

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