Senate passes Biden-backed bill to expand RECA eligibility

As New Mexico’s U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján pushed for expanding the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act on the Senate floor, he told the story of Anastacio Cordova who was exposed to radiation as a young child during the Trinity Test in New Mexico.  That exposure led to him developing three different types of cancer. He […]

Senate passes Biden-backed bill to expand RECA eligibility

As New Mexico’s U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján pushed for expanding the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act on the Senate floor, he told the story of Anastacio Cordova who was exposed to radiation as a young child during the Trinity Test in New Mexico. 

That exposure led to him developing three different types of cancer. He dealt with cancer for nearly a decade before his death 11 years ago. 

His daughter, Tina Cordova, has pushed for expanding RECA to include compensation for downwinders in New Mexico who were impacted by the Trinity Test and have since faced health conditions like the cancer that killed her father and the cancer she survived.

The Senate voted 69-30 in favor of expanding RECA. This is the second time that the Senate has approved expanding compensation; however, it was removed by the National Defense Authorization Act last year before the legislation could reach the president’s desk.

Luján and his fellow New Mexico U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, both Democrats, voted in favor of the bill.

Biden expresses support for expanded RECA eligibility

Prior to the vote, President Joe Biden’s administration released a statement supporting the expanded compensation.

The statement outlines how the legislation would “create new eligibility for individuals who developed specific health conditions and who lived in communities impacted by waste from the Manhattan Project in Missouri, Tennessee, Alaska, and Kentucky” as well as expanding the eligibility to some uranium miners as well as “residents with certain health conditions who lived in New Mexico and Guam.”

“The President believes we have a solemn obligation to address toxic exposure, especially among those who have been placed in harm’s way by the government’s actions,” the statement says. 

As the Senate debated the bill, people from as far away as Guam who have faced the health consequences of radiation exposure sat in the gallery. 

Time is running out for these communities. 

RECA comes with an expiration date that is fast approaching.

In 2022, Luján—who has been working to expand RECA eligibility since he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008—successfully pushed through legislation that extended the time period for people to file claims under RECA. That extension also preserved the ability for Congress to expand who is eligible to file such claims.

RECA is now set to expire in May of this year. Claims must be filed before the expiration. In addition to expanding eligibility, the legislation the Senate passed includes an extension of the timeframe in which people have to file claims for compensation.

“After decades of work and tireless advocacy, we are the closest we have ever been to providing justice and compensation for those who have suffered at the hands of our country’s national security,” Luján said in a press release following the vote. “Today’s bipartisan vote delivers a clear message to the generations of New Mexicans living with the lasting impacts of the Trinity Test that our country has a moral obligation to address this injustice and compensate families for their suffering.”

The expanded RECA eligibility would also include people who worked in uranium mining and milling after 1971, many of whom are members of the Navajo Nation and live in northwest New Mexico.

“These workers who helped develop our nation’s nuclear arsenal and those living near mining operations lacked meaningful safeguards or protection,” Luján said in the press release. “As a result, far too many were exposed and sadly became sick or died.”

Senators speak about the Trinity Test

During the debate on the Senate floor, Heinrich spoke about the Trinity Test when a nuclear bomb was detonated in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin.

“Nearly 80 years ago, in central New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, at a place we now call the Trinity Site, the world as we knew it changed,” he said. “The Trinity Test was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in human history. The families who lived downwind from the Trinity explosion have lived the consequences of that day for every moment of their lives.”

Heinrich emphasized that those people were never warned of the dangers the test brought, including the nuclear fallout that contaminated their food and water.

“They were never told about the kinds of cancers that they would get. The conditions they would suffer through,” he said. “Or the loved ones that they would lose. These families still to this day have not received the recognition or the compensation for what they endured so that our nation could be victorious in the Second World War. Nearly a full century later, nearly 80 years later, these folks deserve better. They deserve justice.”

Luján said the amendment to RECA is not just about New Mexicans. He highlighted states where residents were exposed to harmful levels of radiation due to military initiatives like the Manhattan Project.

“Generations of families wiped out by lung, stomach, prostate, thyroid, skin, breast and tongue cancer didn’t get the glossy Hollywood treatment,” he said, referring to the film “Oppenheimer,” which is favored to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards this weekend. “And the United States Congress has not made any significant progress in correcting these injustices since 2000. Shame on us.”

Missouri senators call on colleagues to set aside partisan differences

Luján and Heinrich were joined by Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, in the effort to expand the compensation. Hawley has become a vocal champion of expanding RECA after learning about how uranium waste from processing it to make nuclear weapons was dumped uncovered at a location next to Coldwater Creek near St. Louis, Missouri. The waste was then deposited in a landfill and has contaminated waterways.

Related: Lawmakers, community members say RECA expansion is needed to help the ‘unknowing, unwilling, uncompensated victims of the Cold War’

Hawley’s speech focused on patriotism and the people who were directly impacted by the radiation exposure, including members of the Navajo Nation who worked in the uranium mines.

“As Americans we make a commitment to each other,” he said “It’s what it means to be an American. We promise that we will live by the ideals that we hold together, and by the things that we love together. And we promise to stand by one another. This is about standing by one another.”

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Missouri, lived in one of the communities in the St. Louis area that is impacted by the radioactive waste. He has also joined the effort to expand compensation.

He spoke about how people in St. Louis County had no idea that the radioactive waste was present in their environment and causing sometimes fatal health conditions.

He said expanded compensation won’t make the communities that have been subjected to radiation exposure whole, but it will bring some measure of justice. 

He then called on senators to take off their red or blue jerseys and vote in a bipartisan manner to live up to the “promise that we made to the people when we got elected, which was that we were going to fight for them.”

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