Survivors, advocates plead for Speaker to allow RECA expansion vote

Millie Chino of Laguna Pueblo teared up as she spoke about her spouse, who died in September due to a health condition linked to radiation exposure. He worked in the uranium mines for six months in 1971 and was not eligible to receive compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act because he did not work […]

Survivors, advocates plead for Speaker to allow RECA expansion vote

Millie Chino of Laguna Pueblo teared up as she spoke about her spouse, who died in September due to a health condition linked to radiation exposure.

He worked in the uranium mines for six months in 1971 and was not eligible to receive compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act because he did not work a full year in the mine.

“He had a valiant fight. I mean, he tried hard to get compensation,” Chino said during a press conference on Thursday in Washington D.C. 

Her husband was closer to receiving compensation than many of the people who spoke about family members they’ve lost or their own experiences dealing with radiation exposure. People who have worked in uranium mining and milling after 1971 are ineligible to receive compensation under current RECA regulations. Chino and others are hoping to get that changed.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández hugged Chino as she spoke and begged U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson to bring the RECA expansion bill to the floor for a vote. Leger Fernández, a Democrat representing New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, said that based on the number of her colleagues on both sides of the aisle who have indicated they would vote in favor of expanding RECA, she believes the bill would pass if it was brought to a vote.

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But the deadline for passing the expansion is fast approaching. RECA expires on June 7, if nothing is done to extend it or expand it. 

Expanding RECA is important to people in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico where the first nuclear weapon test took place and to people living in Missouri where radioactive waste was dumped near waterways. 

Currently, only downwinders in southern Utah, eastern Nevada and northern Arizona and people who worked in the uranium mining and milling for at least a year between Jan. 1, 1942 and Dec. 31, 1971, are eligible for compensation under RECA.

“You have made a difference,” she said after Chino finished speaking. The congresswoman addressed the group of advocates and survivors. “You have all made a difference because you have brought to light and expanded our knowledge and understanding. You have made our hearts cry and you have recognized the importance of doing justice.”

One of the reasons that Johnson has given for not bringing the bill—which passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote—to the floor is the cost.

But Leger Fernández described the impacts as an unpaid bill.

“We paid the cost of the scientists. We paid the cost of the material. We paid the cost of the fuel and the jets. We paid all those other costs. The cost that we didn’t pay were for those communities that were left out of the original RECA,” she said.

Those communities include Laguna Pueblo. Lawrence Juanico is a member of Laguna Pueblo who worked in the uranium mines. He said that he has lost a father and uncle to pulmonary fibrosis and now he has the same illness.

“What does my future look like?” he asked.

Juanico is not just apprehensive about his own future. His wife worked in the uranium industry as well.

“This is not a red issue or a blue issue, a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. This is an issue that impacts all corners of America,” U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat who represents New Mexico, said. He has been pushing to expand RECA since 2009, when he was a member of the U.S. House.

Delegate James Moylan of Guam, a Republican, spoke about the approximately two dozen nuclear weapon tests that occurred at the U.S. territory and urged the inclusion of Guam into RECA.

The impacts of the nuclear weapons testing can be felt generations down the line, as U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez mentioned. Vasquez is a Democrat who represents New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, where the initial tests occurred.

“We’re not just talking about the original downwinders of the Trinity test site. We’re talking about legacies that come after them. Their families, their children that suffer from horrible cancers, that suffer from horrible impacts,” he said.

Vasquez said those families have to pay the cost of the healthcare that is needed as a result of “something that the government did without telling them.”

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, a Democrat representing New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, spoke about how people in the Tularosa Basin “watched radiation fallout fall from the sky like snow.”

“To this day, those families are suffering the cancers that came from that fallout. Their water is contaminated. Their animals died in the aftermath,” she said.

Stansbury thanked the survivors and advocates who attended the press conference for their efforts to try to expand RECA.

“And Speaker Johnson, please. This is not a partisan issue. This is a human rights issue. This is an environmental justice issue. And Speaker Johnson, please bring this to a vote in the House because we must pass the RECA reauthorization now,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, a Democrat representing Missouri, spoke about how the plant that processed uranium ore for the Manhattan Project was in downtown St. Louis.

“There are thousands of people in my district who have died, who have watched their loved ones die, and who are still living with debilitating and life threatening illnesses as a direct result of their exposure,” she said. “We won’t let Missouri be left out. We won’t let Missouri be left out…everyone impacted deserves to be made whole. In fact, there are RECA claimants in all 50 states.”

Laura Greenwood lives in Texas, but her husband was raised in Alamogordo about 63 miles from where the first nuclear bomb was detonated. He was the 13th member of his family to die of cancer and two of his children have been diagnosed with cancer.

“I’m worried about our two daughters. We don’t know what you passed down to them or not,” Greenwood said.

Greenwood’s husband had good health insurance because he worked for the Texas attorney general, but they still struggled to pay the bills as he was diagnosed with three cancers over the course of four years. While he successfully went through treatment for colon and kidney cancer, after about six months of being cancer free, doctors discovered stage four cancer in his liver. 

The costs related to treatment, including travel, left the family broke. Their electricity was cut off multiple times.

But it was when she recalled having their vehicle repossessed that Greenwood began to tear up.

“I can remember when they came to get our vehicle and they were towing it away down the street, and my daughter was chasing it, saying, bring it back, bring it back. Nobody should have to go through that. Nobody,” she said. “And so I’m asking Speaker Johnson to do the right thing. Bring this to the floor and vote for it and give these people the healthcare and compensation that they deserve.” 

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