WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government is moving closer to meeting its promise to ailing uranium miners and others waiting with unpaid IOUs. The Senate approved $84 million in emergency funding for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act trust fund as part of a $6.5 billion supplemental appropriations bill late Tuesday.
The bill still has to be reconciled in negotiations with the House of Representatives, which did not include the $84 million for the program in a version of the bill approved earlier this summer.
But supporters said they were hopeful it would be included in a final bill, expected to be sent to President Bush before Congress' summer recess in August.
The trust fund was created in 1990 to provide up to $100,000 in "compassionate compensation" to former uranium miners, nuclear test participants, downwind residents and others with cancer or other illnesses traced back to their Cold War activities.
But since last year, the fund has been virtually out of money, leaving hundreds of people in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona with Justice Department IOUs, or with claims waiting to be approved. Many of the victims have died waiting for money to back up their approval letters.
"As a nation we can and must do more than issue IOUs," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., one of several senators who lobbied for the emergency funds.
"Hundreds of these beneficiaries live in Colorado and they are in desperate need of that money that was promised to them last year," Campbell said. "Dying has a way of making people desperate, especially when the money promised them in useless IOUs could be used for their care."
Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., have pushed for legislation to make the fund an entitlement program, not subject to year-to-year budget wrangling. Reps. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, and Mark Udall, D-Colo., have proposed similar bills in the House.
The emergency funds for this year still need to clear a hurdle in the House, where some members are wary of adding too much spending to a bill that is mostly for military needs.
"I'm optimistic," Udall said. "The fact that the Senate saw fit to include it puts down an important marker."
July 12, 2001