WASHINGTON, D.C. ― In a major step forward in the fight for justice for victims of radiation exposure, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) testified Wednesday in a key Senate hearing on the need to enact his legislation to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) and provide compensation to all New Mexicans, Tribal members, and families throughout the country affected by exposure to radiation during the Cold War.
The hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee was held eight years after Udall originally requested a hearing on legislation expanding RECA to cover victims of the government’s nuclear testing, including those living downwind of the Trinity test site in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin and post-1971 uranium workers in Northwestern New Mexico. Udall successfully advocated for representatives of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium and Navajo Nation – home to many of the post-1971 miners – to offer testimony for the committee during the hearing.
The hearing was attended by a significant number of New Mexicans, Tribal members, and other Westerners who are either victims of radiation exposure or have family members who were exposed during the Cold War. Udall also asked that the committee allow for written testimony to be submitted for the record for those who were unable to directly participate in the hearing, and the committee granted that request with a deadline of July 5th, 2018.
“As we are witnessing injustice at the border and remembering the shame of Japanese internment, I am also reminded of the grave injustice done to the Cold War victims of radiation,” Udall said during today’s hearing. “They came to me and my father in 1977, and we never gave up on their cause. I respectfully ask the committee to advance S. 197 — introduced by Senator Crapo and myself, and others. This bill would close the gaps in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to make sure that those downwinders and miners and millers who were unknowingly exposed to radiation — but who are not now eligible under the [Radiation Exposure Compensation] Act — are fairly compensated.”
“While we can’t undo the years of suffering, we must do everything we can now to make sure the many unwilling Cold War victims and their families are compensated,” Udall continued. “I hope today’s hearing represents a key step in closing this sad chapter in our nation’s history.”
Udall has fought for many years to expand RECA to cover all victims of radiation exposure, including the Tularosa downwinders and the post-1971 miners and millers who were left out of the initial RECA legislation. Udall, along with U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and others, has introduced bipartisan legislation, S. 197, to amend RECA to expand compensation for victims of radiation exposure in New Mexico as well as several Western states and Guam. Udall’s bill builds on the efforts of Udall’s late father, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, who represented downwinders in the courts for many years and laid the groundwork for the original RECA legislation. Udall first introduced legislation to update the RECA law as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and has sponsored Senate legislation since 2010.
In last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Udall and Heinrich successfully fought to include an amendment to express that it is the Sense of Congress that all victims of radiation exposure should be compensated.
The full text of Udall’s testimony as prepared before the committee is below:
Thank you, Chairman Crapo and Ranking Member Booker, for your very powerful and moving opening statements that show understanding and compassion on the issue that is before the committee today. And thank you for calling today’s hearing. I’m grateful for your leadership and attention to the need to amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
As we are witnessing injustice at the border and remembering the shame of Japanese internment, I am also reminded of the grave injustice done to the Cold War victims of radiation. They came to me and my father in 1977, and we never gave up on their cause.
I respectfully ask the committee to advance S. 197 — introduced by Senator Crapo and myself, and others. This bill would close the gaps in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to make sure that those downwinders and miners and millers who were unknowingly exposed to radiation — but who are not now eligible under the Act — are fairly compensated.
It’s been 8 years since we first introduced this legislation. Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act included the Sense of Congress that all victims should be compensated. Clearly, Congress has recognized what the problem is here.
While we can’t undo the years of suffering, we must do everything we can now to make sure the many unwilling Cold War victims and their families are compensated. I hope today’s hearing represents a key step in closing this sad chapter in our nation’s history.
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act — known as RECA — was first passed in 1990 after years of work and litigation. The original version of RECA gave a level of restitution to sick miners and millers, and individuals downwind of nuclear tests.
In the late ‘70s, my father, Stewart Udall, and I took up the fight for uranium workers. In 1979, he filed a number of claims against the Department of Energy on behalf of widows of deceased Navajo uranium miners. He also filed a lawsuit for the downwinders. This litigation marked a turning point in the fight for compensation for uranium workers and downwinders. My father lost those cases because the judge found that — despite a huge injustice — the federal government had immunity. The court called for this injustice to be remedied by the Congress.
Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy, and Congressman Wayne Owens joined forces to work to pass legislation. I worked alongside my family to urge action and push for just treatment. It was a family effort, and continues as a Udall family priority to this day.
In 2000, Congress amended and improved RECA. Unfortunately, however, the original act and amendments still left out many victims — including the Tularosa Downwinders, the Pacific Island Downwinders, the Idaho Downwinders, and the post-1971 miners, like the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment – who are all represented here today and are sitting in the audience behind me.
Throughout my tenure in Congress, I have introduced legislation to include these folks. Senator Crapo has been a great partner in this effort.
S. 197 honors those who unknowingly sacrificed their health and even their lives to national efforts to develop uranium and a Cold War nuclear arsenal during the mid-20th century.
Much of the United States’ uranium development and weapons testing occurred in New Mexico and the West. During this time, uranium workers, and much of the country, were unaware of the dangers of radiation exposure. But as our national understanding of the dangers of radiation exposure developed, the federal government failed to make sure that uranium workers and downwinders and their families were safe from the hazards of exposure to radioactive materials. As a result, many terrible illnesses and cancers began to emerge in the people who worked in the uranium mining industry and who lived downwind of weapons testing sites.
In New Mexico, the Pueblo of Laguna was home to the nation’s largest open pit uranium mine. Many large and small mines and mill sites were opened within the Navajo Nation. Workers from across the state — especially from economically struggling rural communities in New Mexico — came to these mines and mills for work.
S. 197 takes the next step to address the remaining shortfalls of RECA. The bill includes post-1971 uranium workers as qualified claimants. While the federal government stopped purchasing domestic uranium in 1971, the mines continued to operate and the federal government failed to implement worker safety standards. As a result, thousands of miners and millers were never made aware of the dangers of the yellow cake they handled on a regular basis.
Uranium workers from this period did not have showers or washbasins where they worked. They often took contaminated clothing home to wash. They did not have ventilation to prevent unnecessary exposure.
Today, these workers continue to suffer and die from illnesses related to radiation exposure. But because their employment began after 1971 — the cut-off in the original RECA legislation — they are not entitled to compensation. Our bill changes that.
The bill also expands the geographic areas that qualify for downwind compensation to include New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado, and Guam. And for the first time, the bill recognizes downwind exposure from the original atomic weapons test site – the Trinity Site in New Mexico.
I am grateful the Committee honored my request to have Tina Cordova from Tularosa, New Mexico — downwind of the Trinity Site — testify today to tell the story of the first victims of the nuclear era. And I’m pleased that Vice President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation is here to talk about the impacts on Navajo miners. We are also joined by Amber Crotty, a council delegate from the Navajo Nation.
RECA should include all who are justified in receiving radiation exposure compensation. And I urge this Committee to advance S. 197. It is time.
Thank you. I ask that the committee allow me to submit written testimony from the many folks who were not able to directly participate today.