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Hawley hopeful radioactive waste compensation plan can withstand legislative headwinds

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley waves at a podium.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, center, on July 13 at the Department of Energy’s Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center in St. Charles County. After new reporting on ongoing radioactive contamination in the St. Louis area, Hawley introduced a measure to allow people affected by the contamination to receive compensation.

When the U.S. Senate narrowly approved a measure that would compensate people in the St. Louis region who became sick after exposure to radioactive waste, many in the national media pointed to the release of the film "Oppenheimer" as inspiration.

But Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, the sponsor of the amendment that made it into a national defense bill, stressed in an interview Wednesday that the blockbuster film was a minor part of the unusual legislative trajectory of the plan.

The Republican credited activists in the St. Louis region, as well as an investigation from a consortium of news outlets showing the federal government's mishandling of St. Louis nuclear waste disposal, for building momentum. And he pointed to a critical partnership with a New Mexico Democratic senator for building a bipartisan coalition.

“When you see the extent of the lying by the federal government, what I said is this is the time right now. This is the time with this information to go and get every victim in St. Louis compensated,” Hawley said. “The movie? That's nice. That's not why we're on the threshold of getting this done. It’s really a group of women who worked and worked and worked on this for years.”

Hawley was alluding to activists like Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel who have spent years sounding the alarm about radioactive waste contamination. Much of it came from processing uranium in St. Louis for the Manhattan project — and then mishandling the waste. The investigation by the Missouri Independent, the Associated Press, Riverfront Times and MuckRock detailed how the federal government ignored or downplayed the risks to St. Louis-area residents.

Hawley’s amendment would add a number of ZIP codes in the St. Louis area to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. That’s a fund that was created in 1990 to compensate people who had become ill because of nuclear testing — or through employment with industries that handled uranium.

It was added to the National Defense Authorization Act last month with 61 votes — and if it makes it into the final legislation, Hawley said it would allow people who have become ill with specific ailments to be compensated.

So if you've lived or worked in those areas, and you develop one of the diseases, one of the cancers, one of the autoimmune diseases — then you can apply for compensation,” Hawley said.

Some of the ZIP codes included in Hawley’s amendment encompass parts of St. Louis and St. Charles counties. Hawley said funding for the program comes from the federal government.

“The government caused this, the government should make it right,” Hawley said.

Unusual allies

Of the 61 senators who voted for Hawley’s amendment, the majority were Democrats. Most of Hawley’s Republican colleagues voted against the measure, with many citing concerns about the potential cost.

Hawley credited Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-New Mexico, who he said was instrumental in getting his caucus on board with the idea. He added that Lujan included language that he said will make the compensation program better for people across the country.

“And now we just have to make sure it gets into the final legislative final bill and passes,” Hawley said.

Some of the Republican senators who voted against Hawley’s amendment were party leaders leaders, such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Roger Wicker.

“So I think Republicans were worried about the cost,” Hawley said. “I think some of them just didn't understand quite how urgent and pressing this really is for Missouri and for other states. But this is why I say we've got a chance to convince him again, when we take a final vote on this probably here in another month or two.”

Hawley also said he was heartened by comments from President Joe Biden reported in the Associated Press about compensatingpeople who were harmed by nuclear testing in New Mexico. The president said he’s “prepared to help in terms of making sure that those folks are taken care of.”

“I've had many differences with the president, I've made no secret about that. But this is a chance to do something for the people of St. Louis, for the people of St. Charles, and for other Americans around the country,” Hawley said. “They're all working people who have done nothing wrong here.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.