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U.S. House speaker reverses on radiation compensation bill that excluded Missouri

A photo taken in 1960 of deteriorating steel drums containing radioactive residues near Coldwater Creek, by the Mallinckrodt-St. Louis Sites Task Force Working Group.<br>
State Historical Society of Missouri
A photo taken in 1960 of deteriorating steel drums containing radioactive residues near Coldwater Creek, by the Mallinckrodt-St. Louis Sites Task Force Working Group.

Speaker Mike Johnson says after consulting with U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, Republican leadership has decided not to hold a vote on a bill that would renew the program without adding new states.

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson’s office on Wednesday scrapped a proposal to extend a compensation program for victims of radiation exposure without expanding it to thousands of Americans across nine states.

In a statement that came less than four hours after Johnson’s office said a proposal to expand the program was too expensive, a spokesperson said Republican leadership had decided not to bring the bill up for a vote next week. The statement said the decision came after discussions with U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Republican from the St. Louis suburbs.

Wagner said in a statement she was glad Republican leaders “listened to my concerns and those of my constituents and pulled the floor vote on this misguided proposal.”

“We’re going to keep fighting for expansion…so Missourians impacted by radiation get the support and compensation they deserve,” Wagner said.

The existing Radiation Exposure Compensation Act expires in less than two weeks, and as the deadline nears, federal lawmakers have been caught between the need to extend the program to keep it available for people who already qualify and pressure to expand it to cancer patients from St. Louis to the Navajo Nation.

Members of Missouri’s Congressional delegation decried Johnson’s plan to extend the program without expanding it. Early Wednesday afternoon, Johnson’s spokesperson said Republican leaders were “committed to ensuring the federal government fulfills its existing obligations to Americans exposed to nuclear radiation.”

“Unfortunately, the current Senate bill is estimated to cost $50-60 billion in new mandatory spending with no offsets and was supported by only 20 of 49 Republicans in the Senate,” the spokesperson said.

It’s unclear after leadership’s reversal whether a vote on an expanded program will be held before the law expires.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, originally passed by Congress in 1990, offers compensation to uranium miners and civilians who were downwind of nuclear bomb testing in Arizona, Utah and Nevada. It expires June 10, and for months, advocates and members of Congress — especially from Missouri and New Mexico — have been lobbying Congress to expand it.

U.S. senators have twice passed legislation that would expand RECA, but it hasn’t gone anywhere in the House of Representatives. The legislation would add the remaining parts of Arizona, Utah and Nevada to the program and bring coverage to downwinders in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Guam. It would also offer coverage for residents exposed to radioactive waste in Missouri, Tennessee, Alaska and Kentucky.

Dawn Chapman, who co-founded Just Moms STL to advocate for communities affected by World War II-era nuclear waste that contaminated parts of the St. Louis area, called Johnson’s initial statement a “pitiful excuse.”

Chapman welcomed Johnson’s change of mind and gave credit to Wagner, but she said advocates couldn’t sit an enjoy the victory because it’s unclear where the legislation will go from here.

“We went from feeling good to horrible to, I guess, good now,” she said.

Chapman and supporters of the legislation believe the $50-60 billion price tag is an overestimation, and she noted that cost is spread over five years.

She said supporters have worked to cut the costs of the program, including narrowing the list of health conditions that would qualify for compensation. If costs were a concern, Chapman said, Johnson should have met with advocates to work on further cuts.

Chapman said she’d return to Washington, D.C., next week, and “the least he can do is meet with us for 10 minutes.”

Johnson’s earlier position was revealed Tuesday evening on social media by U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, and sparked outrage among the state’s congressional delegation.

U.S. Reps. Cori Bush, a Democrat from St. Louis, and Ann Wagner, a Republican from the nearby suburbs, vowed to oppose any extension of RECA that didn’t add Missouri.

On social media Wednesday afternoon, Hawley said the federal government “has not begun to meet its obligations to nuclear radiation victims.”

“(Missouri) victims have gotten zilch,” Hawley said.

Parts of the St. Louis area have been contaminated for 75 years with radioactive waste left over from the effort to build the world’s first atomic bomb during World War II. Uranium refined in downtown St. Louis was used in the first sustained nuclear chain reaction in Chicago, a breakthrough in the Manhattan Project, the name given to the effort to develop the bomb.

After the war, waste from uranium refining efforts was trucked from St. Louis to surrounding counties and dumped near Coldwater Creek and in a quarry in Weldon Spring, polluting surface and groundwater. Remaining waste was dumped at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, where it remains today.

Generations of St. Louis-area families lived in homes near contaminated sites without warning from the federal government. A study by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found exposure to the creek elevated residents’ risk of cancer.

Residents of nearby communities suffer higher-than-normal rates of breast, colon, prostate, kidney and bladder cancers and leukemia. Childhood brain and nervous system cancers are also higher.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio

Allison Kite