Idaho downwinders: Sen. Mike Crapo, Tona Henderson speak to Senate committee
Once again, Tona Henderson told her story.
She talked about small-town farm life in Emmett in the 1950s and '60s, "in the valley of plenty." She described the above-ground nuclear tests the U.S. government carried out in nearby Nevada during those years, and the fallout that floated into Idaho.
She shared her efforts to track the spread of cancer through her extended family — 38 relatives have faced the disease so far, she said, including her parents and brothers.
"Until two weeks ago, I was cancer-free. And now I join the rest of my family in this cancer fight," Henderson said.
Henderson for years has worked on behalf of Idaho "downwinders" — people who believe their cancer diagnoses today can be traced to radiation exposure from the nuclear tests.
But her remarks Wednesday were different. Henderson sat at a table in a Washington, D.C., office building. Her audience was members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
Congress in 1990 created a compensation program for victims of the nuclear tests, but limited it to certain counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has sought since 2004 to expand that to Idaho and other affected states.
Wednesday marked the first time that one of Crapo's bills received a hearing.
While by no means a guarantee, Crapo and his staff see the hearing as a sign that something can finally be done for the downwinders.
Idaho's other senator, Jim Risch, is co-sponsoring the current bill. So are three Democrats: Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern pointed Wednesday to what he saw as key developments from the hearing — including support from Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. Booker offered to become a co-sponsor and talked about how the U.S. must not "cover over mistakes."
Booker adds broader geographical support for what until now has been a heavily Western issue, Nothern said.
"It's been difficult to get folks on the East Coast to take a look," Nothern said. "... We're increasing interest among members of the Judiciary Committee, and hopefully this will fan out to members of the Senate."
Nothern said a related House bill is also attracting interest. And he expects the hearing to energize downwinder activists in Idaho and other states. All combined, he said, Crapo believes there may be an opening to act on the measure.
"I think anybody who takes the time to listen to the testimony can't help but be moved, and can't help but be educated as to how serious this issue is," Nothern said.
There are still hurdles, including years of inertia and competing congressional priorities.
Nothern said members of Congress have raised concerns, often quietly, over the bill's costs. There's simply no way to estimate the number of people who might qualify for compensation, he said, and thus the bill hasn't gotten a cost score. The existing program to date has paid out $2.26 billion to victims of radiation exposure, including about $1 billion to downwinders, federal records show.
While Crapo believes existing research makes the case for adding more states to the compensation program, the private National Academy of Sciences in 2005 raised concerns with that sort of geographic model. It advised instead creating a standard to measure the probability that someone's cancer was tied to nuclear testing, and then opening up the program to all Americans nationwide.
Crapo and other advocates have stuck with the traditional approach. On Wednesday, the senator presented a map of fallout areas.
"I don't think we understood this at the time, but we've understood this for a long time," he said.
Previous efforts to kick-start the legislation have sputtered.
In 2009, discussions of health care during President Barack Obama's first year in office gave the downwinders hope of action, Henderson told the Statesman at the time.
In 2013, Crapo and the activists hoped a documentary would lead to more support. "Downwinders" focused on J. Truman of Malad, a lymphoma survivor who is Idaho's other main force seeking compensation. It also included Crapo and Henderson.
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley chairs the Judiciary Committee. But Crapo, who joined the committee in 2017, was allowed to serve as chair for Wednesday's hearing. Besides Henderson, the committee also heard from Udall, whose family has long been involved in the issue; Robert Celestial, head of the Pacific Association of Radiation Survivors; Tina Cordova, who co-founded a downwinder group in New Mexico; and Jonathan Nez, vice president of the Navajo Nation.
Some of the radiation exposure came through food grown in the affected areas. Henderson described one family with four sons. One had a milk allergy, she said, while the other three drank fresh milk — and the son with the allergy is the only one who hasn't developed cancer.
Her list of Gem County residents who developed cancer now includes 1,060 names, she told the senators Wednesday.
"We were unknowing and unwilling participants of the Cold War," Henderson said. "But we'll never have flag-draped coffins at our funerals."
The U.S. government tested nuclear bombs in the Nevada desert during the Cold War. Most of the radioactive fallout occurred during 90 above-ground tests between 1951 and 1962.
Wind blew radioactive clouds north and east, and iodine-131 fell on pastures and alfalfa that fed cows and goats. Children younger than 5 were hit hardest, with doses three to seven times higher than average because they drink more milk and have small thyroids.
In 1990, Congress admitted a link between fallout and cancer. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act said the tests are "presumed to have generated an excess of cancers."
RECA apologized to injured Americans and provided $50,000 in "compassionate payments" for downwinders and survivors for their involuntary exposure in the name of national security. Payments went to victims in 14 counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona. Thirteen cancers were covered.
In 1997, the National Cancer Institute released a study estimating iodine-131 exposure in the Lower 48 states. Four Idaho counties were among the top five nationally for fallout; 13 others got higher-than-average i-131 than the covered counties in Utah.
In 2000, Congress amended RECA to add seven counties and six diseases. But Idaho was left uncovered, in part because the Idaho delegation took no action.
In 2004, Idaho downwinders revived the issue when the National Academy of Sciences was taking public testimony on a congressionally funded update. With pressure from Idaho politicians, a hearing was held in Boise. All four members of the Idaho delegation stayed for the entire seven hours.
But in 2005, the NAS said there was no scientific reason to link Idaho or any specific region to compensation. Rather, the scientists recommended a probability standard for radiation exposure to be weighed case by case, regardless of where sickened people lived.
Crapo continued to follow the existing model, proposing expansion of RECA to heavily exposed states. His current bill covers all of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.
To date, $2.26 billion has been paid to about 34,600 victims and family members. Of that, $1.08 billion went to about 21,600 downwinders; $640 million to 6,400 uranium miners; $324 million to 4,450 on-site participants; $175 million to 1,750 uranium millers; and $36 million to 350 ore transporters.