House Speaker Johnson opposes radiation compensation for Missouri, New Mexico

Republished from Kentucky Lantern


Offering compensation to thousands of Americans across nine states exposed to radiation from the nation’s nuclear weapons program would be too expensive, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson’s office said Wednesday.

With less than two weeks until the existing Radiation Exposure Compensation Act expires, a spokesperson in Johnson’s office said the speaker supports renewing the program where it already exists but not expanding it, creating a huge obstacle for advocates and cancer patients from St. Louis to the Navajo Nation who were exposed to bomb testing or nuclear waste.

“House Republican Leadership is committed to ensuring the federal government fulfills its existing obligations to Americans exposed to nuclear radiation,” the spokesperson said in a statement to The Independent. “Unfortunately, the current Senate bill is estimated to cost $50-60 billion in new mandatory spending with no offsets and was supported by only 20 of 49 Republicans in the Senate.”

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, originally passed by Congress in 1990, offers compensation to uranium miners and civilians who were downwind of nuclear bomb testing in Arizona, Utah and Nevada. It expires June 10, and for months, advocates and members of Congress — especially from Missouri and New Mexico — have been lobbying Congress to expand it.

U.S. senators have twice passed legislation that would expand RECA, but it hasn’t gone anywhere in the House of Representatives. The legislation would add the remaining parts of Arizona, Utah and Nevada to the program and bring coverage to downwinders in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Guam. It would also offer coverage for residents exposed to radioactive waste in Missouri, Tennessee, Alaska and Kentucky.

Dawn Chapman, who co-founded Just Moms STL to advocate for communities affected by World War II-era nuclear waste that contaminated parts of the St. Louis area, called Johnson’s statement “shocking.”

“I think that’s a pitiful excuse,” Chapman said of the limited Republican support. “I think that there isn’t even an excuse for the fiscal conservatives that say, ‘Put America first,’ because they clearly didn’t do that.”

Chapman and supporters of the legislation believe the $50-60 billion price tag is an overestimation, and she noted that cost is spread over five years.

She said supporters have worked to cut the costs of the program, including narrowing the list of health conditions that would qualify for compensation. If costs were a concern, Chapman said, Johnson should have met with advocates to work on further cuts.

Chapman said she’d return to Washington, D.C., next week, and “the least he can do is meet with us for 10 minutes.”

Johnson’s position was revealed Tuesday evening on social media by U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, and sparked outrage among the state’s congressional delegation.

U.S. Reps. Cori Bush, a Democrat from St. Louis, and Ann Wagner, a Republican from the nearby suburbs, vowed to oppose any extension of RECA that didn’t add Missouri.

On social media Wednesday afternoon, Hawley said the federal government “has not begun to meet its obligations to nuclear radiation victims.”

“(Missouri) victims have gotten zilch,” Hawley said.

Parts of the St. Louis area have been contaminated for 75 years with radioactive waste left over from the effort to build the world’s first atomic bomb during World War II. Uranium refined in downtown St. Louis was used in the first sustained nuclear chain reaction in Chicago, a breakthrough in the Manhattan Project, the name given to the effort to develop the bomb.

After the war, waste from uranium refining efforts was trucked from St. Louis to surrounding counties and dumped near Coldwater Creek and in a quarry in Weldon Spring, polluting surface and groundwater. Remaining waste was dumped at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, where it remains today.

Generations of St. Louis-area families lived in homes near contaminated sites without warning from the federal government. A study by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found exposure to the creek elevated residents’ risk of cancer. Residents of nearby communities suffer higher-than-normal rates of breast, colon, prostate, kidney and bladder cancers and leukemia. Childhood brain and nervous system cancers are also higher.

This story is republished from the Missouri Independent, a sister publication to the Kentucky Lantern and part of the nonprofit States Newsroom network.

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