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Idaho Downwinders in Spotlight as Crapo Chairs Senate Hearing on RECA

Tona Henderson of Emmett will testify in D.C.

Washington, D.C. – A major step toward just compensation for victims of radiation known as “downwinders,” relating to nuclear weapons testing during the 1950s and 1960s, comes this week before a U.S. Senate committee in Washington, D.C.  Idaho Senator Mike Crapo will chair a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on S. 197, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) Amendments of 2017.  Crapo and several co-sponsors introduced the legislation in January 2017.  The hearing is scheduled for this Wednesday, June 27, beginning at 10:00 AM ET in Room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. 

The legislation seeks to increase compensation and widen eligibility requirements for victims of radiation who have been denied government help related to radiation for more than fifty years.  Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Guam would be added to existing areas where victims can apply for compensation under the federal RECA program.  Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) will serve as Ranking Member at the hearing.  Crapo joined the Judiciary Committee last year and thanked Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) for the committee’s action on the legislation and the opportunity to chair this hearing. 

Idahoans Tona Henderson of Emmett and J. Truman of Malad have played key roles in the legislation and Senate hearing.  Henderson will personally testify and will be joined by Robert Celestial of Guam, head of the Pacific Association of Radiation Survivors.  Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, will open the witness testimony.  Also testifying are Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium (a New Mexico Downwinder group) and Jonathan Nez, Vice President of the Navajo Nation. 

“After Meagher County, Montana, the Idaho counties of Custer, Gem, Blaine and Lemhi, in that order, had the highest levels in the nation of Iodine-131 exposure,” Crapo said, noting the fallout from nuclear tests often came in the form of rain on food supplies.  “Idahoans, New Mexicans, residents of Guam and many other innocent victims, are left out.  Tragically, for some it is already too late.” 

Following an emotional meeting of 300 people in an Emmett city park back in 2004, Crapo decided to introduce the first of many legislative attempts to help victims.  Emmett and Gem County are known as the “Valley of Plenty” because of the many orchards, gardens and livestock operations producing milk and meat in the area.  Local business owner Tona Henderson heads the Idaho Downwinders and is taking their case to the congressional hearing.  

“Idaho did not know we were in the direct line of fire from the test site,” Henderson said. “We didn’t know we were dying with cancer because of the test site, until 2004.  Then life changed for me - that is when I realized all the family members that had cancer and had died from cancer were all here in the Emmett area during the testing times.  I have 38 people in my family that have had cancer, 14 have died from the disease.” 

In addition to Crapo and Udall, Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), and Michael Bennett (D-Colorado) introduced the latest bill, differing versions of which have been introduced over the past decade, all without a hearing.  The bill makes residents of Idaho, Arizona. Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Guam eligible for medical benefits and other compensation if they can show they were harmed by the arms testing more than 50 years ago.  The original RECA program benefitted those working with uranium mining and some testing programs.  It was later expanded to include some residents in Utah exposed to the nuclear tests.  The new bill would expand that further.  

J. Truman of Downwinders.Org., said it was important to expand RECA coverage beyond the small group that already receives benefits.  “ We need justice, not ‘just us.’  There must be equal justice for all exposed and sickened.  Justice demands the government pay.  $50,000 doesn’t even cover the first round of chemo.” 

“My family is just one cancer story from our beautiful valley,” Henderson added.  “It seems that because of the nuclear testing our ‘Valley of Plenty’ is now ‘The Valley of Death’.  Thank you for your time and for bringing light to this important issue.  I pray you will pass S.197 on to the full Senate, because it is the right thing to do.”

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