Radiation exposure funding isn’t in the final defense bill. What’s next for St. Louisans?
Updated at 1:40 p.m. Dec. 8 to include additional comments and audio from an interview with Sen. Josh Hawley
St. Louis-area residents who live near sites contaminated with radioactive waste are looking for a new path forward after an effort to secure compensation for lifelong health issues did not end up in finalized federal defense legislation.
An amendment to both renew and expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act is not in the final text of the National Defense Authorization Act, despite passing in the U.S. Senate in an earlier version.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, told St. Louis Public Radio on Friday he is “throwing up every procedural roadblock and obstacle” to slow down the bill’s passage.
“I won’t ultimately be able to stop the defense bill in the Senate, but I can make it very painful and very slow,” Hawley said.
Hawley co-sponsored the amendment, along with Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico. Currently, the RECA funding is set to expire in June 2024. The amendment would have extended the program’s funding.
The RECA funding also is only available for people who were likely harmed after exposure to government nuclear programs in certain parts of the western United States. The Hawley-sponsored amendment would have expanded that funding to cover communities in St. Louis and other parts of the country.
Hawley called the move a “grave injustice” on the Senate floor Thursday after vowing to vote against the bill and slow-walk the voting process in protest of this amendment’s absence.
“The defense contractors will get paid, you can bet your bottom dollar we have more than enough money for them,” Hawley said. “But for the people of my state who are sick with cancer because of the government’s nuclear waste — they get nothing.”
The senator showed photos of people with rare cancers who lived in areas with known contamination from the Manhattan Project in St. Louis.
“Take a good look,” Hawley said. “This is who the Senate is leaving out in the cold.”
Dawn Chapman co-founded Just Moms STL after unknowingly buying a house next to the West Lake Landfill, a Superfund site. She was extremely disappointed to learn the funding wasn’t in the final bill Wednesday night.
“I feel like we're betrayed a second time by leadership,” Chapman said. “This decision was made in a shady backroom deal with leadership deciding to cut this entire program out, even though it expires this June for those that were already in it. And I'm so angry about it.”
Now Chapman and other community members and activists are hoping this same amendment can be put on future legislation or be passed in another way.
“Maybe this path has been closed, getting the RECA amendment added to the national defense bill may have closed, but we have other avenues that we can take,” said Christen Commuso, community outreach specialist for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “And make no mistake, all of our communities will continue to fight for this.”
Hawley said he plans to try to attach the amendment to “anything and everything that I can,” now that this path is closed.
Uranium used for the Manhattan Project was processed and improperly disposed of in the St. Louis region. Now, there are multiple sites around the area that are in different stages of remediation, including Coldwater Creek, the West Lake Landfill and the Weldon Spring site. For years, residents of the communities near these sites have reported rare health issues, early deaths and other harms.
Ashley Bernaugh, the former PTA president of Jana Elementary, which closed because of concerns of radioactive waste from nearby Coldwater Creek, said the Department of Defense and Department of Energy have an obligation to help sick people in communities like hers.
“As it stands, June will be the end of this program for everyone,” Bernaugh said. “And I think that that is incredibly, incredibly wrong.”