President Joe Biden on Wednesday said he’s interested in expanding a federal program to compensate people who have gotten sick because of the country’s nuclear weapons development and testing programs.
The Associated Press reported Biden told a crowd in New Mexico he was “prepared to help in terms of making sure that those folks are taken care of.” The comment came a day after the president’s energy secretary stopped short of voicing support for the measure during a trip to St. Louis.
An expansion could open up compensation to St. Louis-area residents who have been exposed to radiological contamination left over from World War II. Some current and former St. Louis County residents face higher cancer risks because they unknowingly played in a creek contaminated by radioactive waste growing up.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Since 1990, the federal government has offered compensation to people who processed uranium or lived near weapons production and test sites and have developed illnesses associated with exposure to radiation.
But even though the first atomic bomb was tested in New Mexico in 1945, residents of the state who lived downwind of the test site weren’t covered. Neither were St. Louis-area residents who were exposed to radioactive waste left over from uranium refining during the development of the bomb.
The U.S. Senate voted narrowly last month to expand the program, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, to New Mexico and Missouri residents as well as residents of Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Guam. It would also expand coverage in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, where “downwinders” in certain areas are already covered. Senators attached the legislation to the National Defense Authorization Act, which still needs approval by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, and Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-New Mexico, urged support for the expansion.
“For decades — decades — they told the people of St. Louis, ‘No problem. There’s no problem here,’” Hawley said on the Senate floor last month. “Meanwhile, children were dying of cancer.”
In a news release Thursday, Hawley said he was glad the president endorsed the legislation.
“Compensating victims of government-caused nuclear contamination and negligence should not be a partisan issue,” Hawley said. “It’s about justice.”
Hawley said “we also must hear from the Biden Administration about their next steps to support victims in the St. Louis area and beyond.”
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis, said in a statement that she has long believed responsibility for the nuclear waste cleanup should fall to the federal government. She was glad to hear Biden’s support of expanding the compensation program.
Bush also met with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Tuesday to convey the community’s concerns about radioactive waste sites.
“I believe we are closer now than ever to expediting this cleanup, expediting testing and restoring health, safety and trust back in our community,” Bush said.
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Missouri, said in a statement that she was supportive of Hawley and Lujan’s amendment and hoped a House-Senate conference committee keeps it in the final version of the bill.
“The St. Louis area was significantly impacted by our country’s WWII nuclear program, and I will continue to advocate for those affected by it,” Wagner said.
On Tuesday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm visited St. Louis to tout projects funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Asked about expanding the compensation program in the defense bill, Granholm wouldn’t commit.
“I can’t speak for the administration on that particular piece because I just don’t know the answer,” Granholm told reporters, “but it certainly is something worth looking at for sure to bring justice to the families that have been affected.”
To this day, St. Louis struggles with radioactive contamination left behind from the World War II-era Manhattan Project.
Uranium was processed in downtown St. Louis for use in development of the bomb. After the war, it was trucked to several sites in St. Louis County where it contaminated property at the airport and seeped into Coldwater Creek. In the 1970s, remaining nuclear waste that couldn’t be processed to extract valuable metals was trucked to the West Lake Landfill and illegally dumped. It remains there today.
After World War II, uranium was still processed in St. Charles County, and a chemical plant and open ponds of radioactive waste remained in Weldon Spring for years.
The site was remediated in the early 2000s, but groundwater contamination at the site is not improving fast enough, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.