Coverage may be expanded for exposure to radiation

Thousands of people who worked in the uranium industry after 1971 could become eligible for compassionate payments under legislation that would extend the reach of a law now two decades old.

That law, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990, has resulted in compassionate payments of nearly $1.6 billion to 23,000 veterans of the Cold War nuclear industry, most of them in the West.

Existing law, however, doesn’t cover those who worked in mines or mills, or who hauled uranium or held other jobs in the industry after 1971 and then became ill as a result of exposure to radiation.

A measure introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., would expand the reach of the original law beyond people who were employed in the industry.

No study of the potential number of claimants exists, Udall’s office said.

The measure also would cover people in seven states who suffered illness as a result of living downwind from nuclear testing and pay for a study of the health impacts on families of uranium workers and residents of uranium-development communities.

Original beneficiaries of the law received $50,000 in compassionate payments that were intended to recognize their sacrifice for the Cold War effort. So-called down-winders generally received less. Over the years, the awards grew to $100,000 and then $150,000 as additional groups of workers were recognized as eligible.

The legislation would standardize payments at $150,000.

The size of the claimant pool is unknown, but Grand Junction attorney Keith Killian said his office has been contacted by 1,000 people with plausible claims under the proposed expansion to include workers in the industry after 1971.

Prior to 1971, the U.S. government was the only domestic buyer of uranium.

“These are all post-‘71 miners, haulers, millers,” Killian said. “We have made no attempt to find down-winders in Colorado” pending passage of the measure, Killian said.

The count doesn’t include Navajo miners, who were active in the industry, he said.

The measure would open the door to miners who previously have been denied benefits, Craig resident Terrie Barrie said.

People whose claims were denied after they worked in other parts of the industry could apply for evaluation of claims by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

“Miners don’t have that recourse” under current law, Barrie said.

Barrie, whose husband, George, was sickened by exposure to radiation when he worked at Rocky Flats, said she is aware the first opposition to the measure will be the nation’s financial condition.

“But the president said we should not put the burden on the shoulders of the most needy. These people were harmed by the government’s work,” she said.

In addition to increasing the potential reach of the compensation law, the bill would make core drillers eligible for benefits. It would add renal cancer or any other chronic renal disease to the list of compensable diseases for miners and millers.

All claimants would be eligible for medical benefits related to their illnesses. Currently, only miners, millers and ore transporters can claim benefits through a separate program.

The measure would raise a cap on attorney fees from 2 percent to 10 percent of the claim.

Udall’s measure is supported by Sen. Mark Udall, Colo., his cousin; Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo; both Idaho senators, Mike Crapo and James Risch, both Republicans; and New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., is studying the legislation, his office said. His 3rd Congressional District includes most of the Western Slope, which included some of the nation’s biggest uranium mines and most active mills.


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