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RECA lapses, Navajo Nation vows to revive compensation

Palo Christi Elementary School in Kingman
Monserrat Apud/Cronkite News
Eddie Pattillo said he saw the mushroom clouds of nuclear tests in Nevada from the playground of Palo Christi Elementary School in Kingman, Arizona, pictured on Feb. 3, 2022.
Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

For more than three decades, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act has provided federal aid to people harmed by the U.S. atomic testing program across 12 states. Many of those affected in Arizona are tribal members, and the Navajo Nation reveals its next steps to revive the program, known as RECA, which sunsetted on Monday.

“Obviously, we’re very disappointed. We’re very upset that it had to come to this,” said Navajo Nation Washington Office executive director Justin Ahasteen, who added that there are only two options left now that Congress failed to extend the program. “One, is again, the National Defense Authorization Act. The other is to continue to push a standalone bill.”

Amendments could be added to the annual defense spending bill as early as this week. But that alternative, for a standalone bill, would require a two-thirds supermajority vote to suspend House rules.

“We’re confident that we have the votes to pass RECA," explained Ahasteen. “What we're not confident about is getting the support for the suspension of rules, because Republicans like to do everything in order. But you know, it’s not off the table.”

Among those House Republicans include Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona’s second congressional district, which is home to multiple tribal communities, including the Navajo Nation. Crane, who also sits on the Committee on Veteran Affairs, expressed his commitment to reauthorizing RECA on Capitol Hill.

“It’s a big mistake to let RECA expire,” Crane wrote in a statement to KJZZ News. “Our government owes a tremendous debt to those who sacrificed their health for our nation. I’m part of the many conversations taking place to chart a sensible path forward on this.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson’s inaction to bring a floor vote on an already-passed Senate bill, sponsored by Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, has even emboldened the Navajo Nation, said Ahasteen, adding: “We have so much momentum behind this at this point, we’re just going to keep fighting.”

The Department of Justice has reported that members of the Navajo Nation make up approximately 86 percent of RECA claimants spanning 24 tribes.

Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.