State Politics

Idaho’s Crapo, Risch among senators seeking hearing on downwinder bill

Senators from Idaho, New Mexico and Colorado have asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on a bill that would increase assistance to those suffering health issues due to exposure to fallout from Cold War-era nuclear weapons testing in the Nevada desert.

A bill introduced by Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, and Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Michael Bennet of Colorado would extend the existing Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to pay more to claimants in more states bordering the test area.

This is the seventh version of a RECA amendment bill introduced in the last 10 years. The original legislation covered residents of 21 counties in Arizona, Nevada and Utah. The bill would extend coverage to claimants throughout all of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

It would also increase RECA awards for so-called “downwinders” from $50,000 to $150,000, equal to what uranium workers and test-site participants are eligible to receive.

“Considering the importance of RECA to many of our constituents, we respectfully request that you move quickly to hold a hearing to bring to light existing deficiencies in the compensation program and to review our legislation,” the senators wrote to Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and its ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

A 1997 study by the National Cancer Institute found that Idaho had four of the five counties with the highest levels in the nation of iodine-131, a radioactive isotope and fallout component that causes thyroid cancer. Meagher County in Montana had the highest level, followed in order by Custer, Gem, Blaine and Lemhi counties in Idaho.

Bill sponsors in Congress have struggled to find support from their colleagues because the issue affects relatively few residents in sparsely populated regions of the West. Despite repeated introductions, the bill has never gained a committee hearing.

Crapo, the bill’s prime sponsor, said he was moved to seek the hearing after a visit to Emmett to preview a documentary on downwinders. He said he hoped the bill would have a better chance of a hearing now that Republicans control the Senate and committees.

“We have been building the case to help those hurt by radiation linked to weapons testing for many years,” Crapo said through a spokesman. “Even though we have had senators from many states willing to cosponsor legislation, we have not been able to have the victims tell their stories at a committee hearing in Washington, DC.”