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Congress expands downwind funding

Uranium mill workers to gain compensation

WASHINGTON — Uranium mill workers — many of them Utahns — sickened by radioactivity from the nation's atomic weapons program in the 1950s and 1960s will now be compensated, thanks to a rare weekend congressional session that saw a plethora of bills pass before members of Congress race home to resume their political campaigns.

The funding, pushed by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, made its way into the Defense Authorization Act, which contains a provision that claims by uranium miners, millers and transporters will now be fully funded by the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA). The amount of the funding increase was not immediately available.

The Department of Justice, which oversees the program, testified before the Judiciary Committee, which Hatch chairs, that the trust fund to pay claims will soon run out of money and claimants will be issued IOUs unless additional funding was found.

"This transfer is good for everyone," Hatch said. "These uranium workers will now receive the same benefits that other atomic weapons program workers receive, and (the fund) has more money to pay downwinders who have suffered from exposure."

Uranium workers received $100,000 under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) and an additional $50,000 through EEOICPA, along with full medical benefits. The new provision designates that EEOICPA will now cover the full compensation for these workers.

"This is a good first step, but everyone harmed by nuclear testing — including downwinders — should receive equal compensation," said Hatch, who tried but failed to get downwinders compensated under the program. "The fight is not over, and I will not rest until all RECA claimants receive the coverage they deserve."

Currently, those who lived downwind from nuclear testing during the Cold War are eligible for compensation only if they lived in certain counties, during certain periods of time and contracted certain types of cancers.

U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, also praised the bill to compensate "nuclear weapons production workers who developed serious illnesses after being exposed to radioactive materials at Department of Energy sites during the Cold War era."

The Defense Authorization Act also includes a provision sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, to end the so-called "widow's tax," where survivors of military personnel saw their benefits reduced upon reaching age 62.

"The families of our men and women in uniform serve right alongside our troops," Bishop said. "This bill makes plain our dedication to protecting the financial security of the survivors of military retirees."

Under current law, beneficiaries see a reduction in their annuity from 55 percent of the retiree's pay to 35 percent. Thousands of these survivors were never told about this annuity cut and the unexpected loss of income can be devastating, Bishop said.

Congress also approved the 2005 Military Construction Appropriations bill (HR4837), which contains $7.7 million in funding for an ICBM Propellant Analysis project at northern Utah's Hill Air Force Base.

"This complex will allow Hill to expand their workload and upgrade their equipment, as well as increase the life of these weapons and provide more accurate data analysis," Hatch said. "Clearly, this complex is necessary for Hill to best support our forces."

On Monday, Congress finally passed a relief package that will make Utah farmers, ranchers and fruit growers eligible for assistance for crop and grazing losses caused by the six-year drought that has ravaged Utah and other Western states. It also includes relief for farm damage caused by hurricanes in the Southeast.

U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee, called the package "critical" and said all Utah producers with losses in 2003 or 2004 will receive assistance.

All Utah counties meet the qualifications for 2003, and most did for 2004, he noted. Farmers will be able to claim benefits under one of the two years.

Also on Monday, Congress passed legislation bringing the United States into compliance with an export ruling by the World Trade Organization. Buried in the legislation were a number of other provisions that will help Utah businesses.

One in particular is a provision that specifies that foreign manufacturers of arrows have to pay the same excise tax that domestic manufacturers pay. Utah-based Easton Aluminum has been fighting for the change for years, claiming the current law created a loophole that allowed foreign companies to unfairly compete.

There is also a provision that allows tax breaks for producers of geothermal electrical power — and Utah has lots of untapped geothermal reserves.

A provision on depreciation for aircraft manufacturers will benefit an Ogden company that makes aircraft engines, and other provisions will help Utah's high-tech industry better export their products to foreign companies. High-tech companies will also benefit from new rules regarding employee stock options and stock purchase plans because they won't have to pay payroll taxes on those stocks.

"If we are really concerned about jobs moving overseas, we must be concerned about creating and maintaining the kind of environment in the United States that attracts businesses," Hatch said. "These changes will go a long way in ensuring that U.S. tax laws do not drive businesses offshore to other nations with more favorable tax laws."

Hatch's biggest victory of the weekend may have been his hard-fought DNA bill that commits billions of dollars for DNA testing of untested rape kits, upgrading crime labs and using DNA to exonerate those wrongfully convicted.

"This is a groundbreaking crime bill that will allow us to unleash the evidentiary power of DNA," Hatch said. "It will provide law enforcement the ability to find and punish the guilty yet give us the comfort of more certainty in criminal prosecutions."

The bill — co-sponsored by prominent Democrats — includes $755 million to eliminate the backlog of 400,000 untested rape kits and other crime scene evidence; $500 million to improve federal, state and local crime labs and to promote the use of DNA in missing persons cases; and $25 million to defray the states' costs of post-conviction DNA testing to ensure those convicted have not been wrongfully imprisoned.