WASHINGTON — Two powerful senators are trying to quickly patch an $84
million foul-up that is preventing many downwind cancer victims of atomic testing from receiving government compensation.
Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also seek to avoid repeating such foul-ups in the future by making funding for the compensation automatic and taking it out of annual appropriations fights.
"It's not fair for the government to promise compensation to downwinders when there is no money. This situation is completely unacceptable," Hatch said Thursday as he and Domenici introduced bills to fix the problem.
A shortfall in compensation funds developed after the Clinton administration last year requested, in error, only $13.9 million for programs to compensate downwinders and cancer-suffering uranium miners in 2001. Congress approved only $10.8 million. Utah delegates to Congress didn't realize the short funding until it was too late to remedy it.
The appropriation wasn't nearly enough to cover the $20 million in claims that had already been approved but not paid in 2000. The program ran out of money last April. More claims have since been approved but not paid in 2001.
On top of that, last July Hatch passed a law to expand the program to include people who suffer from many forms of cancer not originally covered. Recent scientific studies more directly show that such cancers can be caused by radiation exposure.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that with the expanded disease categories, $70 million a year is needed to fully fund expected new claims.
Domenici and Hatch introduced a bill Thursday for an immediate emergency appropriation of $84 million for claims already approved and those expected to be approved during the rest of 2001.
They also introduced a second bill to make future funding for approved claims automatic and mandatory and not subject to annual White House budget requests or annual congressional appropriations.
Hatch has long led fights for downwinders. He pushed into law in 1990 a program to give qualifying downwinders $50,000 each in compensation. Uranium miners who were subjected to known cancer risks without being informed because of the urgency of developing atomic weapons may qualify for up to $150,000.
Domenici, chairman of the Budget Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee, is able to more easily push the bills. He also is concerned about a high number of unpaid claims by uranium miners in his state, most of them poor members of the Navajo Indian Tribe.
"To the Americans who are now paying the price for their work to support our national security during the Cold War, the federal government must meet its commitment," Domenici said.
Hatch said he is upset that cancer victims who qualify for payment are "receiv-
ing IOUs instead of their payments. This is wrong, and we are here today to begin the process of making it right."
Atomic bomb tests in Nevada in the 1950s were conducted only when the wind was blowing away from Las Vegas and California and toward Utah. The government at the time told downwind residents that fallout was harmless. Compensation was awarded by Congress decades later after high rates of many types of radiation-induced cancers were found in downwind areas.