Arizona, Nevada lawmakers try again to get compensation for downwinders

March 17, 2019

WASHINGTON — Nearly 70 years ago, the U.S. government began above-ground testing of atomic weapons in a remote area of Nevada about 60 miles north of Las Vegas.

Over a span of a little more than 10 years, at least 100 tests were conducted, each dispensing material into the atmosphere, where it was spread by winds that pushed radioactive particles throughout Nevada, into Arizona and Utah — and perhaps other parts of the Southwest.

When the tests began, the general public didn’t understand the health risks associated with radiation exposure. Certain cancers and other medical conditions have been linked to radiation; many of those diseases have been reported disproportionately by people who lived near the testing area during the 1950s and early 1960s.

In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, establishing a trust fund to provide lump-sum payments to individuals who had developed certain cancers and other serious diseases that are presumed to be the result of their exposure to radiation from the above-ground weapons testing or activites connected to the mining, processing and shipping of uranium.

Those payments, ranging from $50,000 to “downwinders” — people living in the vicinity of the testing — to $100,000 for uranium miners and processors, totaled $2.2 billion for more than 34,000 claims as of April 2018.

Few of those claims have involved people who lived in much of Mohave County or southern Clark County because those areas weren’t included in the original RECA or its subesequent amendements.

Members of Congress from Arizona, Nevada and Utah are trying — once again — to change that.

“Arizonans’ health should never have been compromised as a result of this government testing,” said Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, who last week introduced the Downwinders Compensation Act of 2019 to amend RECA to include all of Mohave and Clark counties. “Victims suffering as a result of this radiation exposure are entitled to compensation, and this amendment will allow them to access that compensation.”

Senate Bill 776, introduced by McSally, fellow Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Nevada Sen. Jackie Rosen, has been referred to the Senate Committee on the Judicary for examination.

A companion bill, House Resolution 757, was introduced in January by Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, his third attempt at amending the original RECA to include Mohave County. Cosponsors of the House bill are Andy Biggs, Raul Grijalva and Ruben Gallego of Arizona, Susie Lee of Nevada and Chris Stewart of Utah.

McSally’s office noted that people living in much of Mohave and Clark counties at the time of the testing were ineligible for compensation “because of arbitrary boundary lines.”

Rosen said that exclusion of residents who lived much closer to the test site than others who have been compensated was unjust.

“Nevadans exposed to years of dangerous, radioactive activity ought to be fully compensated for the medical complications they suffered as a result of the federal government’s testing of nuclear weapons during the Cold War,” Rosen said. “This bipartisan legislation would do just that by reimbursing Nevadans and Arizonans who were wrongfully burdened as a result of this injustice.”

Gosar introduced similar legislation in 2013 but it was ruled out of order for violating an “earmark” provision by setting aside funds specifically for constituents of a House member, even though the bill would have expanded eligibility to residents of Clark County as well as Gosar’s district, which includes Mohave County.

Sen. John McCain and Rep. Trent Franks also authored previous failed legislation to include all of Mohave County in RECA.

“For Congress to deny the rest of Mohave County the right to even file a claim is both inconsistent and careless, and violates both the apology and the promise made to all downwinders in the original 1990 act,” Gosar said when introducing a 2015 amendment. “The original parameters of RECA were created and passed by Congress, so it falls to Congress to remedy this injustice.”

Just how many people expansion would affect isn’t clear. The population of Mohave County was roughly 8,000 between 1951, when testing began, and 1962, when it ended. More than half of that population lived in and around Kingman, which is roughly 135 miles from the Nevada test site. downwinders would now be in their 60s or older.

The population of what are now Bullhead City and Laughlin was estimated at less than 3,000 at that time.

At previous hearings, longtime Mohave County residents recalled seeing the mushroom clouds to the north as the atomic explosions lit up the sky, not knowing that those fireworks displays were causing serious health risks.

“There is no logical reason to exclude Mohave County or Clark County from compensation from the nuclear testing,” Gosar said at a previous hearing.”