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Missouri advocates of radiation compensation frustrated over congressional stalemate

U.S. Representative Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, speaks during a press conference about Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) on Friday, April 5, 2024, at St. Cin Park in Hazelwood. Members of Congress are calling on Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, to vote on RECA when the House of Representatives returns to session.
Eric Lee
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St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Representative Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, speaks during a press conference about Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) on Friday, April 5, 2024, at St. Cin Park in Hazelwood. Members of Congress are calling on Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, to vote on RECA when the House of Representatives returns to session.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act expired on Friday, and there’s no word on whether the U.S. House will act to revive it.

Missouri advocates for a federal program compensating people who became sick after exposure to radiation from World War II-era nuclear weapons programs are frustrated and outraged over a congressional stalemate.

Congress failed to pass legislation extending the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which expired on Friday. That comes as U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley and Missouri’s House delegation are trying to expand the program to ZIP codes that include the St. Louis area.

Hawley’s bill has passed the Senate twice, first as an amendment last year to the National Defense Authorization Act and earlier this year as a standalone bill. If the House ends up passing the Missouri Republican’s legislation, it would go to President Joe Biden’s desk.

In an interview Friday, Hawley blasted House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana for not acting on his legislation. Johnson previously expressed reservation about the legislation over its potential cost — a concern Hawley finds unconvincing since the measure provides restitution for wrongs that the federal government caused.

“Here's the deal, Mike Johnson is going to have to do something,” Hawley said. “So far it's been just killing things. And now he's letting the program expire. And Missourians right now are getting nothing.”

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, also slammed Johnson for not expanding and extending RECA. She said in a statement the inaction “symbolizes the latest failure in an already extensive, decades-long history of government negligence regarding the Manhattan Project's radioactive waste dumped into our communities.”

“The Senate's passage of the RECA expansion legislation offered a glimmer of hope, a chance to start righting these wrongs for communities like St. Louis who have been left out in the dust, but House Republican leadership callously failed to bring it to a vote,” Bush said.

Local advocates also are calling on Johnson to act, including Dawn Chapman, a co-founder of Just Moms STL.

“We have a speaker who is just unwilling to move,” Chapman said. “He thinks this bill is too expensive, and we've not heard from him.”

A spokesman for Johnson did not immediately return a request for comment. After fierce criticism from both Hawley and U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, Johnson shelved an attempt to renew RECA without expanding it to places like Missouri.

Hawley has often pointed out that it’s perplexing for opponents of his bill to complain about the potential cost when they’re willing to fast-track other legislation that’s expensive, such as foreign aid for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel.

“Maybe you're for that, maybe you're against it, whatever,” he said. “My point is that when the House wants to do something and when it's a priority, guess what, they do it.”

People walk atop a stone-covered landfill on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023, at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center in St. Charles County.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public RadioPeople walk atop a stone-covered landfill in July at the Department of Energy’s Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center in St. Charles County.
People walk atop a stone-covered landfill on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023, at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center in St. Charles County.

Advocates were especially frustrated that members of Congress left Washington to commemorate D-Day without passing legislation.

“We still have people dying of World War II on this shore over here right now,” Chapman said. “The war has not ended for some communities in the United States. And yet, they're over there paying homage when they could be here saving lives.”

Bush and Wagner back amendment

Wagner and Bush are supporting an amendment to the upcoming version of the defense authorization act that reauthorizes and expands RECA.

“It prioritizes helping victims of war, rather than fueling it,” Bush said.

Wagner added: “This important amendment will help Missourians and others impacted by our nation’s World War II nuclear program get the support and compensation they justly deserve. I urge its consideration on the floor.”

Hawley said the fact that a bipartisan contingent of House members is willing to amend the defense reauthorization is telling.

“I hope what House leadership hears from that is there is a strong sentiment,” Hawley said. “And more than sentiment. An incredible sense of urgency by many House members to get RECA expanded and renewed. You can see folks looking to try and prod the House.”

But he added that passing the defense reauthorization will be a long and drawn-out process, and that passing his bill is a quicker way to get a RECA extension and expansion across the finish line.

“I don't know how many more times the Senate has to pass it,” he said. “We passed it twice. Do we need to do it 20 times?”

Still these potential legislative paths give St. Louis-area advocates hope.

“It's been frustrating, discouraging, a little heartbreaking,” said Christen Commuso, a community outreach specialist for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “But I will say it hasn't defeated us. We're going to keep pressing forward. We still believe there are options for us available.”

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Jason Rosenbaum
Kate Grumke