Missouri is pushing for a federal program to compensate people sickened by exposure to radiation from World War II nuclear weapons programs, frustrated and outraged by a deadlock in Congress.

Congress failed to pass legislation to extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which expired on Friday. That’s because U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley and the Missouri House delegation are seeking to expand the program to zip codes that include the St. Louis region.

Hawley’s bill has passed the Senate twice, first as an amendment last year to the National Defense Authorization Act and earlier this year as a standalone bill. If the House of Representatives approves Missouri Republicans’ legislation, it will go to President Joe Biden’s desk.

In an interview Friday, Hawley blasted House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana for not acting on his legislation. Johnson previously expressed reservations about the legislation over its potential costs — a concern Hawley finds unpersuasive since the measure provides restitution for injustices caused by the federal government.

“Here’s the deal: Mike Johnson is going to have to do something,” Hawley said. “So far it’s only killed things. And now he’s letting the program expire. And Missourians are getting nothing right now.”

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, also blasted Johnson for not expanding and expanding RECA. She said in a statement that the inaction “symbolizes the latest failure in an already extensive, decades-long history of government negligence regarding the Manhattan Project’s radioactive waste dumped in our communities.”

“The Senate passage of the RECA expansion legislation provided a glimmer of hope, an opportunity to right these wrongs for communities like St. Louis that have been left in the dust, but the House Republican leadership callously failed to to vote on it, Bush said.

Local advocates are also calling on Johnson to take action, including Dawn Chapman, co-founder of Just Moms STL.

“We have a speaker who just won’t move,” Chapman said. “He thinks this bill is too expensive and we have not heard from him.”

A spokesperson for Johnson did not immediately return a request for comment. After fierce criticism from both Hawley and U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, Johnson shelved an effort to renew RECA without expanding it to places like Missouri.

Hawley has often pointed out that it is baffling for opponents of his bill to complain about the potential costs while they are willing to fast-track other legislation that is expensive, such as foreign aid to Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel.

“Maybe you’re for it, maybe you’re against it, whatever,” he said. “My point is that when the House wants to do something and when it is a priority, guess what, they do it.”

People walk atop a rock-covered landfill at the U.S. Department of Energy's Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center in St. Charles County on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023.

Tristen Rouse

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St. Louis Public RadioPeople walk atop a rock-covered landfill at the Department of Energy’s Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center in St. Charles County in July.

People walk atop a rock-covered landfill at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center in St. Charles County on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023.

Advocates were especially frustrated that members of Congress left Washington to commemorate D-Day without passing legislation.

“There are still people dying from World War II on this coast right now,” Chapman said. “For some communities in the United States, the war is not over yet. And yet they pay tribute there, while here they could save lives.”

Bush and Wagner support the amendment

Wagner and Bush support an amendment to the upcoming version of the defense authorization bill that would reauthorize and expand RECA.

“It prioritizes helping war victims, rather than fueling it,” Bush said.

Wagner added, “This important amendment will help Missourians and others affected by our nation’s World War II nuclear program receive the support and compensation they rightly deserve. I urge that the consideration be discussed on the spot.”

Hawley said the fact that a bipartisan contingent of House members is willing to amend the defense reauthorization is significant.

“I hope House leaders hear from that that there is strong sentiment,” Hawley said. “And more than sentiment. An incredible sense of urgency among many members of the House of Representatives to expand and renew RECA. You see people trying to excite the House.”

But he added that passing the defense reauthorization will be a long and arduous process, and that passing his bill is a faster way to get a RECA renewal and expansion across the finish line.

“I don’t know how many more times the Senate has to pass it,” he said. “We have been there twice. Do we have to do it twenty times?”

Still, these potential legislative paths give hope to St. Louis region advocates.

“It was frustrating, discouraging and a little heartbreaking,” said Christen Commuso, a community outreach specialist for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “But I will say it didn’t beat us. We keep going. We still believe there are options available to us.”

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