Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

RECA Expansion passes U.S. Senate • Source New Mexico

The U.S. Senate voted to expand eligibility and extend the life of a fund for people exposed to radiation by the federal government — including New Mexicans harmed by the first-ever nuclear test at Trinity.

In a 69-30 vote, the Senate passed S. 3853, which funds the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act — called RECA — past its June sunset date for another six years. The bill also increases the payment amount and broadens who can receive payments from the fund around the country.

U.S. nuclear testing, waste disposal and uranium mining exposed people to radiation in communities that have been left with high rates of cancers and other diseases. Many have still received no compensation.

Before the vote, U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico) recounted Anastacio Cordova’s life on the Senate floor, noting that he was 4-years-old and living in Tularosa, N.M., when the 1945 Trinity Test detonation over the Jornada Del Muerto occurred 45 miles away. Like many families in the area, he was often drinking water from open cisterns, eating crops fed by acequias, and hunting and eating game caught in the area.

“Little Anastasio didn’t know it at the time — none of the families there did — but the world they were living in was contaminated by radioactive particles from the first nuclear test,” Luján said.

He noted this was one heartbreak in a string of deaths from cancer and diseases after radiation exposure.

He thanked Anastacio’s daughter, Tina Cordova, who sat in the gallery for the vote, adding that she’s his guest for the State of the Union address on Thursday.

“I’m thankful to have her by my side for this cause,” Luján said, then paused. “I’m going to change that — I’m honored that she allowed me on this journey with her, to help other people.”

Tina Cordova is a cancer survivor and longtime advocate for southern New Mexicans who’ve been impacted for generations.

New Mexico Downwinders demand recognition, justice

In a phone call with Source NM, she said the day was marked by both the vote and the 11-year anniversary of the death of her father, who had inoperable cancer.

“Just one of those amazing coincidences,” Cordova said.

She said she’s better prepared to try and convince Republican House members to support the measure.

“We need to make sure they understand this is a nonpartisan issue,” she said. “For House members from places like Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and Montana, that they understand voting against this is voting against people impacted in their states.”

Luján has tried to widen the program since 2009. He was part of a bipartisan group of seven senators co-sponsoring the bill, including Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona), Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Arizona), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Missouri).

The U.S. Department of Justice calls the unique fund an “apology.” It provides lump-sum compensation for certain cancers and serious diseases people contracted as a result of working in the uranium industry or after exposure during above-ground nuclear tests. But the fund remains limited.

Many “downwind” communities are excluded from compensation. The expansion bill would fold in for the first time thousands of New Mexicans from the area surrounding the Trinity Test Site, along with people from Idaho, Montana, Colorado and Guam. And instead of just a handful of counties where fallout fell, the entire states of Utah, Nevada and Arizona would be included.

In addition, the bill would significantly expand how many uranium workers could be covered by extending the time period past 1971 through 1990.

And the bill acknowledges communities where nuclear waste was dumped in Missouri, as well as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alaska.

‘They scrapped us’: The Trinity downwinders and New Mexico mine workers who remain unrecognized

In remarks on the floor before the vote, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) urged colleagues to support the measure, saying they would be “standing on the right side of history.”

“Today, we have a chance to finally deliver justice for the Trinity downwinders, and for all Americans who are exposed to radioactive nuclear materials,” Heinrich said.

On Wednesday, the eve of the vote, the White House issued a policy memo backing the legislation.

“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 memo stated.

Previous RECA expansions have been cut from funding bills. In 2022, supporters managed to keep the fund alive after an eleventh-hour extension eked through.

In July 2023, the Senate voted to add an amendment expanding RECA to the more than $800 billion defense package. It was later struck during negotiations.

This bill approved by the Senate Thursday significantly cut the fund extension. Instead of continuing the program for another 19 years, the new legislation would extend the life of RECA until 2030 — only six years.

The measure still faces a vote in the House.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-New Mexico) told Source NM that the support from Republicans in the Senate for a standalone bill was encouraging and said she hoped it sends a message to the House.

“We won’t be able to get a standalone bill in the House, but we are hopeful that we’ll be able to include it into one of the packages that will move forward,” she said.

Leger Fernández and uranium miner Phil Harrison (Navajo) were gathered with others watching the vote, calling it an emotional affair.

“This story is one of sadness and heartbreak, and Congress has the ability to write a new ending to this story,” Leger Fernández said.

On the phone, Harrison said the vote is a moment of long-awaited recognition, but it’s marred by concern for people still struggling after exposure to radiation.

“While the vote was being completed, I thought of all those people that were sick or suffering from cancer, miners that are on oxygen,” he said.

He thanked the senators who voted for the bill and said he was optimistic about support going forward.

“This is a step forward,” he said. “But from now, we have a lot of work still ahead of us.”

Since 1990, RECA has paid out $2.6 billion dollars in claims, a fraction of a percent of what the U.S. spends on nuclear weapons. According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, the federal government is expecting nuclear weapons to cost $756 billion between 2023 and 2032.

What does S. 3853 do?

Downwinders: The bill would allow RECA to cover people in Idaho, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico and Guam, and includes all of Nevada, Arizona and Utah, instead of just certain counties. It specifically acknowledges Trinity Test and Guam downwinders for the first time.

Uranium miners: The measure would extend the time frame for eligible uranium workers through 1990 instead of cutting it off at 1971. It compensates those who mined, milled or transported ore in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, South Dakota, Washington, Utah, Idaho, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas.

More conditions: The bill would cover new cancers, and it would also allow chronic kidney illness as a qualifying disease for uranium workers.

Waste disposal: Communities harmed by Manhattan Project waste or waste from other tests deposited in certain areas of Missouri, Alaska, Tennessee and Kentucky could receive compensation up to $25,000 under the bill.

Better compensation: Accounting for inflation, the measure increases lump-sum compensation to $100,000 for downwinders and on-site participants — up from the $50,000 and $75,000. If signed, the bill would allow previous claimants to submit new claims to make up the difference.

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