BY ZACK BUDRYK – 10/03/23 6:00 AM ET
Now, a coalition of activists from St. Louis and New Mexico is working with the support of a bipartisan supermajority of senators to broaden the pool of such Americans who are eligible for federal compensation.
A proposed amendment to the annual Defense funding bill that the Senate approved earlier this year with 61 votes would expand that pool to include people who were exposed as a result of nuclear testing in Idaho, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Guam and the St. Louis area.
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), passed in 1990, covered then-residents of Utah, Nevada and Arizona. But this excluded a number of Americans who had suffered exposure — including from the first-ever detonation of an atomic bomb, the Trinity test, which was conducted as part of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., in 1945.
That first test dealt a major blow to many in the vicinity. A 2020 study by the National Cancer Institute estimated at least 1,000 individual cancers had developed or would develop in connection with it. The infant death rate in New Mexico in 1945, the year of the test, was 38 percent higher than 1946 and 57 percent higher than 1947.
Cordova told The Hill that five generations of her family, who have long lived in the area, have been diagnosed with cancer, most recently including her 23-year-old niece.
“We were basically enlisted into service of our country. And we’ve given everything we have to this. We bury our loved ones on a regular basis and then somebody else is diagnosed, and it’s multigenerational for us,” she said of residents in the area.
The St. Louis area, where multiple sites were used for the storage of uranium and nuclear waste during World War II, has also suffered significant health impacts.
Studies conducted there by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services indicated elevated levels of leukemia and breast, colon and kidney cancer relative to the rest of the state in eight ZIP codes along the Missouri River tributary Coldwater Creek from 1996 to 2011.
Coldwater Creek was the site of extensive dumping by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, which had an exclusive arrangement with the Department of Energy to produce weapons-grade uranium.
“They began processing uranium for the Manhattan Project and that uranium came over from the Belgian Congo,” said Dawn Chapman, a leader of the group Just Moms STL, which has lobbied for the RECA expansion. “We were chosen because of our location — we’re right off the Missouri River, we’re in the middle of the country … we’re kind of out of sight.”
Beyond Coldwater Creek, at least two other sites in the St. Louis area have been linked to exposure to radiation: the West Lake Landfill and the World War II-era Weldon Spring Ordnance Works.
“Everybody has the same story … our sites are so complex, and they each have their own nuances,” said Kim Visintine, a leader with the community organization Coldwater Creek — Just the Facts Please.
“The pollution that our government put out there … if you really look at it, you’re thunderstruck,” added Visintine, who describes the damage to the community as “World War II friendly fire.”
Local activists have called for expansion of compensation for decades, but “our government has never really wanted to know the truth,” Cordova said. “So there’s these spotty studies, but no epidemiological study, no comprehensive epidemiological study of even one community or one state.”
In Congress, Missouri Sens. Eric Schmitt (R) and Josh Hawley (R) have partnered with Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) in an effort to add the expansion to the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The amendment passed the Senate with a filibuster-proof majority of 61 votes in July.
Schmitt and Luján have vastly different politics overall. But when they discuss RECA expansion, they sound remarkably similar.
“Nearly eight decades after the Trinity Test in New Mexico, many New Mexicans are still left out of the original RECA program. This is unacceptable given the number of New Mexicans who have gotten sick and died from radiation exposure,” Luján said after the amendment passed the chamber.
“The federal government has an obligation to keep Americans safe, and the pure negligence that has harmed St. Louisans has been brushed aside and covered up for far too long,” said Schmitt, who grew up in Bridgeton, the St. Louis suburb that was the site of the West Lake Landfill. “What was wrong back then was to leave out inadvertently the communities that are represented here from that compensation. Because justice is not complete until it is justice for all. That is what we are asking for. Justice for everybody.”
RECA currently offers payments of $50,000 in compensation to “downwinders” — those downwind of the Nevada National Security Site, the site of at least 1,000 nuclear tests since 1951 — as well as $75,000 to participants in atmospheric nuclear testing and $100,000 to uranium miners and millers. As of January, the federal government has paid out about $2.5 billion to 40,274 people under the law, according to the Justice Department.
The Senate’s approval of the NDAA amendment marks the 13th attempt at expanding RECA. This year, proponents took advantage of the publicity surrounding Christopher Nolan’s biopic “Oppenheimer,” which depicts the Trinity test in a climactic set piece, to highlight the issue. The amendment passed the Senate July 27, six days after the movie opened.
The House approved its own version of the NDAA before the Senate. The chambers are set to conference and craft a single final bill, likely toward the end of 2023.
Efforts to expand eligibility — and even maintain those already in place — face a ticking clock: The original RECA sunsets in 2024. The amendment that passed the Senate would extend the law another 19 years.
The bipartisan support for the expansion in the Senate has strengthened activists’ conviction that the issue can rise above any partisan fray.
Activists from both New Mexico and Missouri feel the issue is “not just bipartisan in terms of the political parties but very much feels like a unified front right now,” Chapman said.
“Radiation is nondiscriminatory, it doesn’t care what color you are, it doesn’t care what your politics are,” Visintine said. “It’s just as deadly to everybody.” It also knows no geographic boundaries, she added — even if an actual contamination site isn’t in a member of Congress’s state or district, interstate travel means a victim of it could easily become part of their constituency.
The St. Louis and New Mexico groups spent years working on the issue separately and lobbying their respective members of Congress, but the Union of Concerned Scientists ultimately connected them. Connecting with their New Mexican counterparts was an emotional, often painful experience, Chapman said, due to the guilt that accompanied St. Louis’s role in producing the uranium that ultimately caused so much suffering in New Mexico.
“Sitting in a room at the Union of Concerned Scientists building with all these other people, we all sort of cried and hugged each other and mourned what we’ve been through but felt for the first time like we’re one big family,” Chapman said.