Calling it a “moral imperative,” Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley on Monday held a national press call to urge the continued inclusion of his radiation victims compensation amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) now being negotiated by congressional leaders.
The 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) is set to expire in early 2024. An amendment sponsored by Hawley and attached to the defense bill last July would reauthorize the radiation act and, for the first time, expand it to include compensation for those sickened by radioactive waste in the St. Louis region.
Hawley says WWII/Cold War-era atomic bomb production left 242 million pounds of radioactive waste in St. Louis region landfills, in groundwater and even a creek, leading to the 2022 closing of Jana Elementary School in Florissant.
The senator appears concerned that congressional leaders, worried about the Congressional Budget Office-estimated $147 billion cost of the RECA reauthorization, will strip it out of the defense bill later this month.
Indeed, the nonprofit Committee for a Responsible Budget writes, “While this cost may not have been known at the time of passage, Congress should now consider whether to move forward with this proposal, how it could be modified or scaled back, and – importantly – how it should be fully paid for.”
Hawley says he and co-sponsor Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, have been working on lessening the fiscal impact – but also notes Congress may authorize $60 billion more for Ukraine in the coming year alone.
“The impact of this has been catastrophic to all of our families,” says radiation victim Dawn Chapman who, with Karen Nickel, founded the West Lake Landfill advocacy nonprofit Just Moms STL in March of 2013.
Yet, Hawley says Republican Senate leadership, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, voted against his bill to compensate the victims.
“It is a moral imperative that this program be reauthorized,” Hawley told members of the media on Monday’s call. “It is a moral imperative that the people of this country who have suffered, in some cases lost loved ones, because of the government’s negligence and because of its nuclear program – they need to be compensated, and this program needs to be extended.
“It would be a travesty to vote to make it expire. If it gets stripped out of the defense bill, that is essentially leadership saying that they are going to allow this to expire and throw these Americans out in the cold. And I think that that would be a huge mistake, but also frankly a great moral failure.”
The St. Louis region was a uranium processing area.
“There’s been wide exposure over decades now,” Hawley said. “The government has known about it and we have never been included in the RECA program. St. Louis residents, St. Charles residents, Missouri residents have got nothing – no compensation, no apology, nothing from the federal government for decades.”
Hawley said that, with the Christmas break and end of the year coming, “it is absolutely vital that this pass now. There are very few legislative vehicles that have the possibility of moving through both houses of Congress in just the next few months before this program expires and all of the lights turn off.”
Unless congressional leaders keep the RECA reauthorization in the defense bill, Hawley warns, “this program that has been vital now for over 30 years for tens of thousands of Americans – and I want to also emphasize that thousands more have current claims that are waiting to be processed – all of that will shut down.”
Hawley expressed disdain for the fact that the amendment, upon which compensation for radiation victims is riding, is at the whim of just four leaders from the two chambers in Congress meeting behind closed doors.
“We are now in the backroom-deal phase of the defense bill, which I don’t like and I’ve been very open and critical about. I mean, this is the phase where just four people are making decisions in a back room that are going to affect, in this case, tens of thousands of Americans who rely on this program to live – and probably thousands and thousands more who deserve some help with their medical bills and compensation, and who are not getting it. And we’re just waiting to hear what it will please them to do in that back room.”
The original 1990 RECA bill, signed by President George H.W. Bush and extended in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, included an apology to the victims, who sacrificed their health and sometimes their lives to help win World War II and prevail in the Cold War, Hawley said – adding that the government doesn’t often issue such dramatic apologies. “Probably not as often as they should.”
“The whole purpose of this statute was to help make that right,” he said. “They need to inform people who have been exposed. They need to try and compensate those who have been exposed, and help with their medical expenses in an effort to make this right.”