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Rep. Mark Alford backs measure compensating St. Louisans for radioactive waste exposure

Congressman Mark Alford, R-Cass County, said he supports an effort to compensate people in the St. Louis area who became sick due to radioactive waste exposure.
Courtesy of Congressman Alford's office
Congressman Mark Alford, R-Cass County, said he supports an effort to compensate people in the St. Louis area who became sick due to radioactive waste exposure.

St. Louis-area residents are closely watching a conference committee on a major national defense bill allowing people stricken with illnesses consistent with radioactive waste exposure to be compensated.

But while GOP Rep. Mark Alford supports Sen. Josh Hawley’s amendment, the Cass County Republican added that an impending government shutdown could impact efforts to negotiate on that legislation.

Earlier this summer, Hawley teamed up with Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-New Mexico, to attach an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. Among other things, it 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.

Because the House didn’t vote on such a measure, getting Hawley’s amendment through the legislative process will likely require gaining support from members of the conference committee. And because many Senate Republican senators opposed Hawley’s measure, House Republicans could play an especially crucial role in that outcome.

Alford, who was appointed as an outside conferee to the NDAA, said he backs Hawley’s amendment.

“I'm fully supportive of Senator Hawley and his efforts to get this money that’s rightfully due to these victims,” Alford said. “The government was wrong in what they did. And it's time that we pay these families the money that's due them for the harm that's been caused.”

Hawley’s amendment comes on the heels of an investigation by numerous media outlets that showed the federal government downplayed or ignored risks associated with radioactive waste in the St. Louis region. Dawn Chapman, one of numerous St. Louis-area residents who have been raising alarms for years about radioactive waste exposure, said last week in Washington, D.C., that advocates were not presenting “a heavy ask.”

“Mountains move every single day,” said Chapman, referring to the bipartisan support for Hawley and Lujan’s amendment. “And you’re going to see another one move real quick in the House.”

Alford said he hadn’t spoken to other Republicans about their opinion on compensating St. Louis-area residents for potential radioactive waste exposure. He added that he wants to confer with Hawley so he can get fully up to speed on the amendment.

“Because if I'm going to be advocating for this, I want to make sure I have a full set of facts, and that I can fight as strongly as he had for the people of Missouri,” Alford said.

Two other lawmakers who represent portions of the greater St. Louis region, Congressmen Sam Graves, R-Tarkio, and Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, are also outside conferees on the NDAA conference committee. Neither Graves nor Bost returned a message seeking comment.

Congresswoman Ann Wagner, a Ballwin Republican who is not on the conference committee, said in a statement that she supports Hawley's amendment — and added that she wants to see Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., as a Senate conferee. Schmitt was one of the few Republicans on the Armed Services Committee to support Hawley's measure.

"I am hopeful that Senator Schmitt, as a Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, will be named a conferee and fight for all of Missouri’s interests in the upcoming negotiations," Wagner said in a statement. "The St. Louis area was significantly impacted by our country’s WWII nuclear program, and I will continue to advocate for those affected by it.”

Shutdown looming

The effort comes at a time when Congress is facing a deadline to pass legislation that would keep the government running.

Last week, the House went home without a clear path on how to resolve the impasse. A handful of Republican lawmakers have openly quarreled with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy over how to proceed before the government shutdown on Oct. 1.

Alford said a government shutdown would affect negotiations over the NDAA. He said a shutdown also would impact investigations into Hunter Biden’s business dealings.

“If we don't have a … fully funded government, we are not going to be doing conferences of any sort,” Alford said. “That's why it's so important that we find a solution, we try to win these five members over so that we can reduce our spending by 8%.”

Any GOP House plan would almost certainly face changes in the Senate, which is under Democratic control.

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