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Radioactive waste compensation not included in latest government funding bill

Coldwater Creek on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024 in Florissant. The community requested the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct Technical Assistance Needs Assessment (TANA) and Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) for Cold Water Creek and the St. Louis airport.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Coldwater Creek, which is being studied by the EPA, last January in Florissant

Congressional leaders chose not to include the expansion of a radioactive waste compensation program into a must-pass government funding bill.

It’s a move that brought condemnation from U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and a demand for action from U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri.

House and Senate leaders will likely win approval of a massive spending package this week that keeps the government funded. Wagner had sought to add to that resolution Hawley’s Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act. Known as RECA, it would expand a compensation program for people who got sick from radioactive waste exposure to people in the St. Louis area.

But that bill wasn’t included in the so-called “minibus” legislation released on Thursday morning. Wagner said in a statement that “reauthorization and expansion of RECA is vital for affected Americans here in St. Louis and around the country.”

She said in remarks on the House floor that “Missourians are terrified that radioactive waste is poisoning our communities.”

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Ballwin) touts her accomplishments in Congress on Friday, July 22, 2022, during a meeting of the St. Charles County Pachyderm Club at Mattingly's Sports Bar & Grill in Lake St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, said she wants House Speaker Mike Johnson to suspend the chamber's rules and pass the Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act promptly.

“These innocent victims of the U.S. nuclear weapons program are relying on Congress for restitution. I am outraged Senate and House negotiators left this urgently needed legislation out of the spending package,” Wagner said. “Mr. Speaker, time is of the essence. RECA expires in less than three months. And that is the existing law, which excludes St. Louis. Just extending the law won't help my constituents dying of cancer. Passing [Hawley’s bill] will.”

In a statement, House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana praised Wagner for advocating for the program and said he would work with her.

“I understand her position and I look forward to working closely with Ann as we chart a path together for the House to move forward with evaluating and acting on a reauthorization measure,” said Johnson, a Republican.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley speaks to the press on Thursday, July 13, 2023 at the Dept. of Energy’s Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center in St. Charles County.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, center, speaks in July 2023 at the Department of Energy’s Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center in St. Charles County. Hawley has pushed for months to compensate people in the St. Louis area who became sick because of radioactive waste exposure.

Hawley to House: ‘Stop screwing around with Missouri’

Hawley said in a tweet on Thursday morning that the exclusion of RECA from the spending bill amounted to a “total failure.”

“Politicians have talked like this for decades. While doing nothing,” Hawley said in response to a tweet that contained Johnson’s statement. “The time to talk is over. The time to ACT is now. Put RECA on the floor and vote on it. Stop screwing around with Missouri.”

Earlier this month, Hawley sharply criticized Wagner for comments reported by the Kansas City Star questioning whether RECA would find favor in the House, primarily due to its estimated cost and its lack of a permanent funding stream. Hawley had said those arguments were nonsensical, since the federal government was responsible for radioactive waste exposure in Missouri and other parts of the country.

Wagner responded by saying she was for RECA and promised to try to get it in the spending package. In addition to Wagner, Missouri U.S. Reps. Cori Bush, Blaine Luetkemeyer, Mark Alfrod and Jason Smith supported that move and sent a letter to congressional leaders asking for it to go into the spending package.

Bush said in a statement Thursday that it is “beyond disappointing to see congressional leadership fail to include any extension or expansion of the RECA in this upcoming spending bill.”

“This is an insult to our communities who continue to be harmed by the radioactive waste dumped and left for decades by the federal government,” said Bush, D-St. Louis County. “How is it that our government always has endless funds for war but refuses to find the money to repair the harm it caused?”

While RECA didn’t make it into the spending package, the House could take up Hawley’s bill and send it to President Joe Biden, who has expressed support for the legislation. They could also make changes to legislation and send it back to the Senate, where it received 69 votes of support.

Dawn Chapman, who has been pushing for compensating people in north St. Louis County and St. Charles County who were sickened with Manhattan Project-era radioactive waste, said in a tweet that Johnson’s statement gave her some hope that the House would seriously consider Hawley’s bill.

“While upsetting to see this wasn’t on minibus — we remain hopeful that this acknowledgment from the speaker and hard work from our House Rep. will lead to passage of RECA!” Chapman wrote.

Chapman also said Johnson should listen to Wagner “and suspend order and vote on RECA NOW!”

“Don’t make St. Louis and the other communities wait while you take a two week vacation!” she added.

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