Tuesday, July 17, 2001 - WASHINGTON - Congress is expected to decide this week whether the federal government will make good on the IOUs it has been sending for more than a year to sick and dying uranium miners in the West.
The $84 million needed to pay victims is a big sticking point in negotiations between the House and the Senate. The issue could be decided in a conference committee meeting tentatively scheduled for Wednesday.
The money is needed to pay settlements to people sickened by exposure to uranium as they helped produce uranium for U.S. weapons during the Cold War. That includes uranium miners, veterans, federal contractors who participated in above-ground nuclear tests and "downwinders" who lived near the test site. The settlements were authorized by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
"These people are elderly people. They're dying. They're on life support, and the federal government is giving them IOUs," said Lori Goodman of Durango, a leader in the Western States RECA Reform Coalition. Goodman contrasted the cost with last weekend's successful $100 million missile-defense test over the Pacific Ocean.
"What did it cost to have "a bullet hit a bullet?'" she said.
The victims are concentrated in the Rocky Mountain West, with many from Colorado. A Justice Department list showed that as of May 4, Colorado victims were owed more than those from any other state, with 56 people holding nearly $5 million in IOUs.
Utah had more IOU victims, 64 people owed $3.5 million. Four people in Wyoming are owed $100,000 and 31 people in New Mexico are owed nearly $3 million.
The RECA Trust Fund was set up in 1990 after years of lawsuits, to provide "compassionate compensation" to victims, but it ran out of money after Congress expanded eligibility without expanding funding. Since then, claims have piled up as Western lawmakers battled to get more money, agreeing that the federal government has betrayed hundreds of people who helped win the Cold War.
Last week, the House rejected a motion that would have required its negotiators to agree to the $84 million.
U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, was one of two Republicans to vote for the measure. A McInnis spokesman said he learned that RECA was included in the measure only moments before the vote, and questioned whether it was a "sneaky" move by Democrats to paint Republicans as unconcerned about radiation victims.
"We're confident that this language is going to carry through," said McInnis spokesman Blain Rethmeier.
"We've just got to get these people their money."
On Monday, U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., urged conference committee members not to compromise on money for the victims.
"There must be a lot of give and take between the Senate and House to finalize any appropriations bill," Domenici said. "In this instance, however, any compromise on the funding level for RECA would be unacceptable."