Half a century ago, Idaho and surrounding states were intentionally targeted by the federal government to receive radioactive fallout from nuclear test explosions. That much is known, thanks to declassified Atomic Energy Commission documents. But how the government should take responsibility for this disregard for to its citizens' welfare continues to be debated.
A year ago this Sunday, over 80 downwinders from rural areas hit heavily by fallout spoke at Taco Bell Arena to a packed house of supporters, as well representatives from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and Idaho's governor and Congressional delegation. With alternating sadness, anger and relief, the victims recalled their stories of illness but spoke hopefully of the prospect of governmental apology and compensation. In the ensuing tumultuous year, they've seen legislation introduced on their behalf, had one of their most vocal representatives, Sheri Garmon of Emmett, pass away from cancer, but ultimately they are little closer to their goals.
The 2004 hearing was held to determine whether the NAS should recommend that Congress expand the Radiation Compensation Exposure Act to include Idaho and other affected areas. First created in 1990, the act allows residents of 21 counties in Utah, Arizona and Nevada, who suffer from any of 19 different cancers, to receive up to $50,000 in compensation. Proving that one's cancer resulted from fallout is not required; only residence and illness.
However, according to a 1997 NAS study, four Idaho counties--Custer, Blaine, Lemhi and Gem--were as heavily dosed with by radioactive Iodine 131 fallout as any areas included in RECA. At the time, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and then-Sen. Dirk Kempthorne made demands in national media for greater federal investigation into the possibility of compensating affected Idahoans. As of last year, neither had made good on those demands, leading downwinders to accuse the politicians of taking a seven-year nap on the issue.
"It seemed like they'd forgotten us," said downwinder Tona Henderson of Emmett. Henderson owns the Rumor Mill coffee shop, a Gem County hub where downwinders and supporters continue to meet and discuss new developments--like the April 28 release of the latest NAS report, which said an expansion of RECA to include any specific geographical area, even high-dose areas like Idaho and Montanta, wouldn't be "equitable." While the report conceded that every county in the continental U.S. received fallout from explosions, it added, "It is unlikely that exposure to radiation from fallout was a substantial, contributing cause to developing cancer." The report suggested expanding RECA nationwide but it implementing medical standards to determine who should be compensated. With science at the helm, the authors wrote, an expansion would "result in few successful claims" for compensation.
At the time of its release, the report was viewed by many as a dire blow to the RECA expansion movement. According to Preston Truman, head of the advocacy group Downwinders, the report was simply the NAS "passing the radioactive buck." But Truman says that unlike the silence following the 1997 report, Idaho's downwinders have refused to accept defeat. "They didn't just close up shop and go away," he said. "This time they're actually there to bite politicians in the butt and make them do something about it."
Following the extensive media coverage surrounding last year's Boise hearing, Truman said he has heard from several hundred previously unheard downwinders in Idaho and Montana. Ester Ceja, of the Boise-based nuclear watchdog group Snake River Alliance, said her organization has also heard from several newly discovered downwinders each month. As a result, the Alliance has created a downwinder advisory group, composed of representatives from affected counties around the state. The group held its first conference call last week, with a simple message: Keep the dialogue going.
"We're working to continue to put pressure where we can and organize meetings with the delegates," Ceja said. "It's a slow process, but we need a congressional hearing on this."
The plea for congressional attention is being heard. Both Montana Senator Conrad Burns and Idaho Senator Mike Crapo have introduced legislation this year to expand RECA into their home states--despite the NAS's recommendation that science should determine any expansion. Burns' legislation, introduced in May, recommended Montana's 15 heaviest-hit counties to be roundly included, with other victims statewide able to apply on a case-by-case basis. The bill calls for $200 million in appropriations to be added to RECA, with 95 percent going directly to downwinders.
Crapo's bill is far simpler. In its entirety, it reads, "To include the State of Idaho as an affected area under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act." The qualifications in Burns's bill about counties and monetary amounts are left out, making Crapo's version seem more reliant on existing RECA standards . In an interview with BW, Crapo explained that the brevity is because the bill is only an "interim step" while Congress decides whether to undertake the RECA overhaul suggested by the NAS.
"We're not trying to create a new system," he said. "We're simply saying, Idaho should be added to the existing RECA coverage. It's an intermediate step, without making Idaho wait for what might be a lengthy debate in Congress about what do with RECA, and whether to do anything with RECA."
Crapo admitted that support for his state-specific bill has been tough to come by, since "Senators are undoubtedly going to say, 'Well, why don't we just see if a new approach can be worked out?" He also said he couldn't predict when there would be a congressional hearing or other action in regard to his bill. Crapo has been in discussion recently with Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, but said that in a meeting last week, Specter "Was not prepared to make a firm commitment to proceed on my bill yet."
In the meantime, Idaho's junior senator has received consistent, if not always enthusiastic, support from the rest of Idaho's delegation. Sen. Larry Craig co-sponsored the bill, while Rep. Butch Otter's spokesman Mark Warbis told BW Otter "is looking forward to reviewing that legislation when it comes to the house side," calling the bill "our best consolidated effort to get done what needs to get done." Rep. Mike Simpson has said that he would support a House version of the bill, but he also wanted to explore options closer to the NAS report's recommendations. Neither has made any statement about introducing the bill to the House on his own.
Gov. Kempthorne, according to his spokesman Mike Journee, is taking an even more staid attitude toward the bill. "We do have this NAS report which says geographic distribution isn't necessarily a good idea," Journee said. "We don't really know which way Congress is going to go with that. But whichever way they go, we think it is important that if they decide to add geographic areas to this act, that Idaho's interests certainly should be watched out for."
Such reserved stances in the delegation make some downwinder advocates, like Dr. Peter Rickards of Twin Falls, incredulous. "Crapo is on the right track, but obviously in super-slow motion," Rickards said. "The rest of the delegation is not helping at all. This immediately puts up a red flag to me that they're putting up a little show as the issue re-arises. This is what happened in 1997."
Henderson gave Crapo more credit, but wants Idaho's delegates to shore up support for the bill before it's too late. "We feel like [the hearing] was to our benefit, but only in the last few months," she said. "Crapo's just kind of waving in the wind out there, and in the meantime, people are still dying."