Op-ed: Delegation demands radiation exposure compensation

Published in the Santa Fe New Mexican

By: U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández, Melanie Stansbury, and Gabe Vasquez

The New Mexico congressional delegation joins countless radiation exposure advocates in New Mexico and across America in continuing to advocate for the extension and expansion of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, program.

As we push for justice, it is important to speak out against false and inaccurate descriptions of the program, as in a recent Albuquerque Journal piece that contained false equivalencies and inaccuracies — the most insulting of which likened New Mexican victims of radiation exposure to “ice buckets.” We encourage the writer to explain this analogy to victims such as Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. She has seen generations of her family diagnosed with cancer and watched as many more who have died of cancer waiting for recognition.

First, we would like to address the major inaccuracies.

The piece claimed the RECA program has paid out $2.6 trillion. This is wrong. The program has paid out $2.6 billion over more than 30 years. It is disappointing that a piece focused on fiscal responsibility misrepresented the actual cost of the program. We are glad this has since been corrected but remain concerned by the lack of fact-checking.

Additionally, the original RECA program only covered certain Downwinders and uranium miners up until 1971. It was never expanded, as the author suggests, beyond that date for those who are now referred to as post-’71 miners.

The version of RECA passed in 1990, which covered communities in Utah and Nevada, irresponsibly left out New Mexicans who suffered from the very first nuclear explosion. It baffles us that a New Mexico newspaper would applaud leaving out New Mexicans from a law meant to compensate Downwinders. While it was wrong for Congress to exclude New Mexicans in 1990, today we take it as our solemn obligation to include them.

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the primary author of the original RECA legislation, said this of expanding RECA in his final years: “Updating this legislation is a moral imperative. RECA, as it is currently written, extends benefits only to uranium miners, millers, and transporters who worked until 1972. But an updated bill would extend benefits to those who worked after 1972, many of whom have developed cancer as a result of radiation exposure.”

Our delegation has worked closely with our Republican colleagues to fulfill this moral imperative, and we have strong bipartisan support to strengthen the RECA program.

In 1945, when the federal government began nuclear weapons testing at the Trinity Test Site, New Mexicans unknowingly sacrificed their health for our national security alongside countless Americans. Generations of New Mexicans who first witnessed that first mushroom cloud continue to suffer from the horrifying health impacts of its aftermath.

The price they paid in the name of national security is greater than any dollar amount — dollars Downwinders never even received.

We have been proud to work across the aisle and across chambers to build support for RECA expansion, resulting in bipartisan legislation passing twice in the Senate. We continue to call on House Speaker Mike Johnson to hold a vote on our legislation; he has so far refused to provide justice to New Mexicans and so many others.

The speaker’s inaction and blatant disregard for the lives and well-being of New Mexicans and Indigenous communities should not be applauded — it should be condemned. As New Mexicans, we must protect one another and our rural communities.

As a delegation, we will not stop fighting until New Mexico families receive the justice and support they deserve.



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