Luján Presses Action To Strengthen RECA To Ensure Justice For Exposed Workers And Downwind Communities

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján

U.S. SENATE News:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) testified in a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties about the importance of strengthening the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA)  to compensate individuals exposed to radiation while working in uranium mines or living downwind from atomic weapons tests.

Sen. Luján previewed that he will be re-introducing the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in the Senate with U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID). As a member of House Leadership, Sen. Luján convened a meeting between House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and downwinders and uranium miners last year to underscore the importance of strengthening RECA.

Footage of the hearing is available here.

An excerpt of Sen. Luján’s remarks:

Seventy-five years ago, rural New Mexico became ground zero for the detonation of the first nuclear bomb at the Trinity Test site. 

Henry was 11 years old when the Trinity test occurred. He was living in Tularosa, New Mexico with his family. That morning, he said he heard a large blast and saw a great flash of light. “I got so scared,” he wrote, that he thought that the world was “coming to an end.”

Francisco, another witness of the Trinity Test, said, “There was a large cloud in the shape of a mushroom.” He wrote: “We realized later that the backs of the cattle had turned white as though they had suddenly aged. This test was a total surprise to us. We were not informed that the detonation was going to take place. Even after the test, no one communicated with us in regards to this major occurrence.” 

“That atomic bomb,” Gloria wrote to me, “has caused anguish to so many people in New Mexico… The people from New Mexico have suffered physically, mentally, and financially. And we are all here in hope that you will find a way to help us.”

While the Trinity Test ushered in the start of the atomic age, it also marked the beginning of sickness and suffering for generations of people who lived and grew up in the Tularosa Basin or who worked in or lived near uranium mines and worked in those areas. 

For example, you can still find a high level of contaminants downstream from the Jackpile-Paguate uranium mine in Laguna Pueblo. This was the world’s largest open uranium pit.

As President Johnathan Nez with the Navajo Nation will share in his testimony, the Navajo people continue to suffer from the legacy of uranium mining. 525 abandoned mines and the largest hazardous waste spill, which occurred at the Church Rock mill site in 1979. 

Thousands of New Mexicans who worked in uranium mines faced unsafe and dangerous conditions.

Mr. Chairman, one of the questions I ask is: The first bomb that was detonated on American soil in New Mexico, the largest oil uranium pit, one of the largest tragedies that occurred with uranium failings, why are these communities not included in downwind designation? 

I invite you to listen to the story of a Cipriano Lucero, a uranium miner from Grants, New Mexico who recently passed away.

He wrote: “My respiratory protection consisted of a single paper mask per shift and the mask was useless after the first hour or so because it was covered in yellowcake. Most of the rest of the shift, I used a bandana to cover my face but that stopped little of the yellowcake dust from being inhaled directly. There was no real protection from overexposure to radiation in the yellowcake area.” 

To help those Americans who sacrificed so much for our national security, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1990 and later broadened the scope in 2000.

Unfortunately, RECA currently leaves behind far too many New Mexicans and people across America. This includes downwind communities from the very first nuclear test in  New Mexico. 

This is just not right.

And this is just one state. 

From 1945 to 1962, the United States conducted nearly 200 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests while building the arsenal that became the cornerstone of our nation’s Cold War. Downwinders in Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Guam still await justice.

The mining and processing of uranium ore, which was essential to the development of weapons, were conducted by tens of thousands of workers from across the county. Far too many of these workers are now sick and dying and were not included in the original designation of RECA. 

It’s why we all have to come together. These people deserve justice. That’s why I’ve been proud to work on this issue in the House, and I’m now proud to work with Sen. Crapo in the Senate.

It’s a matter of fairness. 

When this legislation is reintroduced in the House, I urge this Committee to act on it.

Mr. Chairman, I’ll leave you with this – I had one elder Navajo women who made the journey to Washington, D.C. to testify, and she asked Congress one simple question: Are you people waiting for us all to die so that the problem goes away? 

Remember those words from Gloria: We “hope that you will find a way to help us.”

We can work on this issue with RECA. Let’s work together to make sure we’re not leaving our fellow Americans behind one more day.

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