Senators want to expand compensation

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People who became ill from working in uranium mines are among those who would be affected

By Sue M. Holmes

ALBUQUERQUE — A bipartisan group of U.S. senators from western states wants to expand federal compensation for people who became ill from working in uranium mines, living near debris left from mining or living near atomic tests from the 1940s into the ‘60s.

The measure, introduced Monday, would broaden who’s eligible for compensation, expand the downwind exposure area to include seven states and fund a study of health impacts on families of uranium workers and people living near uranium development.

“As the U.S. built up its Cold War nuclear arsenal ... many Americans paid the price through their health,” the measure’s prime sponsor, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said Tuesday.

Senate staffers could not said how many people might potentially be covered by the proposed amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA.

The bill would add all of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Utah to areas defined as downwind from atomic tests.

The proposed update also would cover people employed in uranium mines and mills after 1971 through 1990. The law currently does not cover workers after 1971, when the federal government stopped buying uranium.

The senators argue many later workers suffer the same illnesses, and that the government failed to implement and enforce uranium safety standards during the two additional decades the amendment would cover.

The legislation also would recognize radiation exposure from

Trinity Site in New Mexico, where the world’s first atomic bomb was tested in 1945, and from later tests at Pacific islands.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., another sponsor, cited the Trinity Site provision.

“This is not a great many people, but there are individuals who lived in our state, who still live in our state ... they’ve never been covered by this legislation and never had any compensation,” said Bingaman, who was instrumental in getting RECA expanded in 2000.

Senators also want to make all claimants eligible for the program’s medical benefits, which currently go only to uranium miners, millers and ore transporters.

The proposal also would authorize $3 million for five years for health studies on the impacts of uranium development on communities and the families of workers.

Families have worries about possible contamination, Udall said: “Are the diseases we are getting the result of our breadwinner coming into the home with dirty clothes contaminated by radiation? Did we bring dirty water into our house?” he said. “I don’t think it’s been looked at in a comprehensive way.”

Udall’s father, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, crusaded for miners and downwinders for 30 years, involving most of his family as well. Tom Udall said he remembered working on the issue when he was a lawyer in private practice.