Utah’s downwinders are, once again, abandoned and betrayed


What are our lives worth?

(AP file photo) This July 16, 1945, photo shows an aerial view after the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site, N.M. U.S. senators from New Mexico and Idaho are making another push to expand the federal government’s compensation program for people exposed to radiation following uranium mining and nuclear testing carried out during the Cold War. Downwinders who live near the site where the world’s first atomic bomb was tested in 1945 as part of the top secret Manhattan Project would be among those added to the list.

Last week, I sat anxiously in the gallery of the U.S. Senate floor with other advocates from across the country and as far as Guam while the fate of the bipartisan bill to strengthen and extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was being decided. Some of us had traveled to Washington, D.C., multiple times to advocate for the bipartisan bill that would finally include all of Utah, Arizona and Nevada as well as other states and territories where exposure to radiation from nuclear weapons testing, production and waste storage has led to endless cases of cancer, radiation-related illnesses and thousands of deaths.

As senators entered the chamber to cast their votes, next to me Kevin Davis of the Union of Concerned Scientists kept a tally on a small piece of paper. We needed 60 votes. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), Ben Ray Lujan (D-New Mexico) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) passed the Senate in the fall of 2023 as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. But it was stripped out at the last minute by Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, dashing the hopes of those of us who had spent decades working for justice for our communities.

Dawn Chapman of St. Louis, Missouri, where families are dealing with cancers resulting from Manhattan Project waste stored there, was so overwrought she left the gallery in tears before voting ended. Tina Cordova, head of the Tulasrosa Basin Downwinders in New Mexico, nervously held her head in her lap. We’d gotten our hopes up before and now the clock was ticking. The current RECA program expires at the end of June – just three short months away.

I didn’t expect a yes vote from Sen. Mike Lee, who has made it clear he does not support RECA expansion though he did help push through a two-year extension in 2022. However, I held out hope that Sen. Mitt Romney might side with his constituents. Compromises to make the bill more palatable to fiscal conservatives cut its price tag by more than half. The estimated $9 billion a year over six years is a fraction of the $50 billion our government invests each year to maintain its nuclear arsenal.

I turned to Tona Henderson from Emmett, Idaho, as Romney cast his vote: “Nay.”

“Today would have been my brother’s birthday,” she said, blotting tears. “What was his life worth?”

What are our lives worth? Aren’t they worth a tiny fraction of maintaining the weapons that made us sick and left us to bury and mourn the dead?

Utah is one of the most heavily impacted states, yet our senators, whose job it is to protect and serve us, instead abandoned and betrayed us, leaving us to rely on their colleagues from other states to ensure the bill’s passage.

I was shocked when Mitch McConnell walked to the front of the chamber and voted “aye” as did Lindsay Graham, J.D. Vance, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Fortunately, more “aye’s” and thumbs up kept coming.

When Kevin leaned over and whispered, “We’ve got the votes, we’ve got them,” I pulled out a tissue, overwhelmed with gratitude but deeply disappointed by my senators, Mike Lee and Mitt Romney. The final tally of 69-30 showed strong bipartisan support. We won albeit without their help.

It has been a long road to our hard-won victory. Many of us have worked for decades to improve and strengthen RECA. While it provided a lifeline to many, it was never inclusive enough and offered minimal compensation nowhere close to covering the crushing costs of medical care.

Currently, downwinders in only 22 largely rural counties in southern Utah, southeastern Nevada and northern Arizona are eligible for $50,000 in compensation. Workers who mined, milled and transported uranium ore, many of them on tribal lands including the Navajo Nation, receive $100,000. Only those working in the industry until 1971 are covered, despite mining continuing long beyond that date.

The recently passed Senate bill, which increases compensation to a uniform $150,000, includes uranium workers through 1990; those exposed to fallout from testing throughout the entire states of Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado, Montana; the U.S. territory of Guam; and communities poisoned by radioactive waste in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alaska.

The bill must still pass the House. Senators Lee and Romney turned their backs on patriotic Americans who were the collateral damage of our nation’s nuclear ambitions. Utah Representatives John Curtis, Blake Moore, Burgess Owens and Celeste Maloy now have a critical opportunity to recognize and honor the sacrifices we and our families have made by voting to support RECA and do the right thing for those harmed by decades of nuclear testing and production. Otherwise, what are our lives worth?

(Photo courtesy of Mary Dickson) Mary Dickson

Mary Dickson is a Salt Lake City writer, a downwinder and an internationally recognized advocate for survivors of nuclear weapons testing and production.

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