RECA extension passes House, but advocates say it’s not enough

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Thousands of New Mexicans have had to deal with a potentially deadly problem for decades – radiation exposure. This week, Congress made moves to increase benefits for radiation victims, but some say it’s not enough.

Phil Harrison is an advocate for the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee.

“I think people need to realize that, the rest of the Americans, they need to know what really happened to our people, you know, just because they were not educated, they can’t read and write,” Harrison said. “They used them as cheap laborers and sent them to unsafe mines.”

Hundreds of those Navajo victims are not alive today, and survivors are struggling to get compensation. That’s why New Mexico delegates in D.C. are fighting to get them the help they need.

On Wednesday, the U.S. House approved a 2-year extension for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which was set to expire this summer. The Senate had passed the extension last month.

“If that program would have been allowed to expire, that would have eliminated benefits for families that have yet to apply,” Sen. Ben Ray Luján said.

Harrison said the changes are necessary, but claims the current program overlooks Navajo victims.

“They got to have chest X-rays that have to be done and read by an expert,” Harrison said. “Those chest X-rays have to be positive, they got to perform what they call a pulmonary function test. That is very painful. We don’t have hospitals here that specialize in these special services. So they often travel 200 to 300 miles to get new services done.”

On top of that, victims need proof of residence – which many living on federal trust land don’t have. So, their applications get denied.

“This is something that has to be done to right a wrong, and for the United States to admit liability to the problems that they created,” Luján said.

The senator recently proposed amendments to the current RECA Program. He wanted to extend it for 19 years – instead of just two – double compensation and expand eligibility. The bill also would include benefits for those who worked in uranium mines and mills, or those who transported uranium ore after 1971.