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Guest: Time to make right by Northern Utah Downwinders

By Mary Dickson, Andrea Pickering and Tina Cordova - Special to the Daily Herald | Jan 27, 2022

Isaac Hale, Daily Herald file photo

Then-U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams looks at a representative display set up by the Utah Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons before a press conference concerning efforts to expand and extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) held at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City on Monday, July 6, 2020. The jars represent different countries, and each sunflower seed represents one nuclear warhead that the country possesses.

January 27, which marks the anniversary of the first nuclear bomb detonation at the Nevada Test Site, has been designated by the U.S. Congress as National Day of Remembrance for Downwinders, the many people who worked and lived downwind of the test site and were exposed to lethal levels of radiation. We must honor and remember those harmed by U.S. nuclear weapons development and testing. But we must go further, taking action to see that those who have suffered and continue to suffer from their subsequent illnesses are compensated for the painful price they have paid.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Wayne Owens, was passed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, who noted at the time that it was “partial restitution” for the harm done to patriotic citizens, many of whom would lose their lives due to their exposure to fallout.

The current RECA program expires on July 10, 2022. Bipartisan bills were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate this fall to extend RECA another 19 years and to expand it to include all of Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico, Montana and Colorado – states heavily impacted by radioactive fallout, and Guam, impacted by U.S. testing in the Pacific. These Downwinders, as they are known, have suffered the physical, emotional and financial ravages of their fallout-related cancers. Too many have already died waiting for justice. Finally, the bills would provide compensation to downwinders of the 1945 Trinity Test – the nation’s first nuclear detonation in New Mexico, which had far-reaching consequences for those in surrounding areas.

The new bills would make uranium miners and workers previously excluded under RECA, referred to as Post ’71 workers, eligible for compensation. Many of those workers live on tribal lands and lack access to much-needed health care. The Native Downwinders and uranium workers, who rely on Indian Health Services, must wait months and months for referrals for cancer treatment. Too many die waiting.

The House Bill (H.R. 5338) already has 65 co-sponsors representing both parties and the Senate Bill (S2798) has 15. On this day of remembrance, we urge Senators Mitt Romney and Mike Lee to join other senators across the country who have become co-sponsors of S2798 and we urge Rep. John Curtis to sign on to HR5338. These bills that transcend party lines are vital to Utahns.

According to a 1997 study by the National Cancer Institute, which shows overall per capita doses of radiation by county, Utah County and counties in Northern Utah received as much as – sometimes more – than did counties in the southern part of the state that are currently covered under RECA, yet counties in Northern Utah are not covered, which the new bills would remedy.

We know how heavily fallout affected Utahns across the state. Supporting bills that would include them for eligibility under RECA is in the best interest of Senators Romney and Lee and Rep. Curtis’ constituents. More than words and designations of special days, we need action that will help those who have suffered and are still suffering from the tragic legacy of the Cold War arms race. It’s simply the right thing to do.

Mary Dickson is a member of Utah Downwinders;  Andrea Pickering, Utah County Downwinder;  Tina Cordova, Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium; Tona Henderson, Idaho Downwinders; Garrett A. Vallo, Southwest Uranium Miners Coalition Post ’71;  Phil Harrison Jr., Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee; Loretta Anderson, Laguna Pueblo, Southwest Uranium Miners Post ’71; Robert Celestial, Pacific Association for Radiation Survivors Guam.

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