OP-ED | Time has come for RECA to include Mohave County and others left behind

OP-ED | Time has come for RECA to include Mohave County and others left behind

By Paul Gosar
The Kingman Miner


Congress is on track to take up the annual NDAA legislation before the end of the year and it is fitting that this must-pass defense spending bill include the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA. This little-known program has an outsized impact on people living in communities in Arizona who were exposed to radiation from above-ground nuclear testing and uranium mining.  As the year winds down, Congress has a chance to do the right thing and support these communities, and they must not let this chance pass them by. 

During the Manhattan Project and the Cold War, our government tested over 200 nuclear weapons above ground, spreading radioactive fallout across the country, especially in the Western United States.  In the process, thousands of people, including many Arizonans were exposed to dangerous levels of toxic waste and radiation. 

None of the communities exposed to radiation from production, mining, testing, and waste storage were warned of health risks associated with exposure. What’s worse, the federal government knew the risk to our communities, and not only did nothing, but denied these risks and continued to put people at risk.  Crueler yet, the federal government told families that the tests were safe and encouraged people to have “watch parties” to view the bombs.  Studies linking cancer and lung disease to the nuclear testing were withheld from the public. 

In response, Congress established RECA in 1990, providing cancer screenings and modest compensation to a small group of exposed communities, including in northern Arizona. But far too many have been left without access to this critical program, including many of my own constituents in Arizona. For decades, I have been fighting for the federal government to recognize the communities of Mohave County that have been illogically excluded from the program. A 2015 report from the Arizona Regulatory Agency found that currently excluded Arizona counties received similar or higher levels of radiation exposure compared to currently covered counties. It concluded that “since Congress has made the decision that compassionate payments are appropriate for certain areas of Arizona, it is an inequity to not provide the same payments in areas with the same or higher risk…” 

We see the same pattern across the West: Utah is also partially covered, but studies have shown that many currently excluded counties received higher levels of exposure than those that are included. Montana and Idaho have been left out of RECA entirely, despite receiving some of the highest levels of exposure in the entire country, according to a 1997 National Institutes of Health study.  Entire categories of uranium workers were excluded, even though they bore similar risks as other covered coworkers.

RECA is a valuable program but it has gaping holes and inconsistencies that have left communities neglected, forced to face the devastating costs and suffering of radiation exposure alone, for decades. 

Congress should not be in the business of limiting what it costs to achieve justice or putting a price on the lives lost from hazardous government activities. There was an appropriate time to consider limits – in the 1950s and 60s when the government could have considered the massive risks that these tests created for the entire country.  But today, when the cancers are materializing, we must do what is right. 

In 2020, we saw trillions of dollars conjured from thin air for COVID.  We see $150 billion appear overnight for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel on top of the earlier $3 billion. No one ever asks about offsets for these expenditures. I don’t think our own citizens, injured by their own government’s negligence, should be nickeled and dimed while these same peoples’ taxes are sent overseas. 

It is a tragic fact that in an effort to protect us from our enemies, the U.S. government poisoned its own people.  We should honor and take care of the survivors of nuclear weapons activities who unknowingly sacrificed their health and sometimes their lives for our country.  

With lawmakers expected to pass the annual defense budget bill this month, now would be the appropriate time to strengthen RECA and cover these communities by expanding the program, already authorized by Congress, that has been life changing for so many people. 


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