Uranium payments may rise

Bill would expand eligibility criteria

A program that has paid out nearly $1.5 billion to uranium-industry employees would be expanded significantly under legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate.

The bill would enlarge the number of people who would be eligible for compensation by increasing the number of compensable diseases and adding to the number of occupations that would be covered.

Residents of Colorado and New Mexico affected downwind by nuclear testing also would be eligible for compensation that they now are denied because those states were not covered in the original legislation.

The changes proposed by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Colorado Democrats, have been in the works for several years, said Keith Killian, a Grand Junction attorney who represents claimants and has lobbied for the Navajo Nation to win changes in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, adopted in 1991.

“The wheels of the Legislature grind slowly,” Killian said. “The unfortunate thing is that since we’ve been working for the changes, literally hundreds of my clients have died.”

The compensation act originally acknowledged the contributions of uranium miners to the United States’ Cold War effort.

It offered $100,000, an amount later increased to $150,000, to miners suffering from terminal diseases related to radiation exposure, including emphysema, certain lung cancers and other illnesses.

Later amendments to the act added other occupations to the list of those that could be compensated, as well as increasing the size of the compassionate payment to those who suffered from compensable diseases.

Other elements of the bill would:

Recognize uranium-industry workers who worked in mines, mills or trucking between 1971 and 1990;

Equalize compensation for all claimants to $150,000;

Add core drillers to the list of occupations that could be compensated;

Fund an epidemiological study of the health effects on families of uranium workers and residents of uranium-development communities.

Colorado and New Mexico were outside the area in which people who lived downwind from nuclear testing could be compensated if they suffered from diseases believed caused by radiation exposure.

Including those states in the compensation program “would be wonderful,” said Durango investigator Becky Rockwell, who has worked with radiation-exposure program claimants and claimants under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act, which was enacted in 2000.

Residents in Dolores and Montezuma counties in Colorado and San Juan County in New Mexico were more affected by downwind fallout but are ineligible for compensation. Residents of San Juan County in Utah, however, are eligible, Rockwell said.

The legislation is intended to clean up such disparities, Killian said, who noted that people who lived near Alamagordo, N.M., where testing occurred, also will be covered by the legislation.

In science, “Uranium is uranium is uranium, but not in statute,” Killian said.

The expansion of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act is long overdue, Sen. Mark Udall said.

“We must never forget the heavy price that thousands of Americans paid during the Cold War arms race,” Udall said.

It’s “critically important to ensure that these Americans are compensated for what they’ve endured,” Bennet said.

Many relatives of miners, millers, truck drivers and others who are eligible for compensation have maintained they also were affected by exposure to radiation, and Killian said he hoped the study of families will help answer that question.

“Justice has finally arrived,” Killian said, “but it’s awfully late.”


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