WASHINGTON – Today, Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (CT-05) voted for the bipartisan Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, to address the full range of issues impacting veterans exposed to toxic chemicals and provide access to benefits and healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The Palomares Veterans Act, introduced by Congresswoman Hayes, to remove barriers to benefits and compensation for the veterans who responded to the 1966 nuclear accident in Palomares, Spain was included in the final package.
The Honoring our PACT Act opens healthcare to over 3.5 million veterans, including 1,600 Palomares veterans, exposed to toxic substances during their military service, including burn pits and airborne hazards. The bill will create presumptions for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers, shifting the burden of proof from veterans. Therefore, if a veteran served in a particular theatre at a particular time, they will be presumed to be exposed to toxic substances and then potentially eligible for healthcare and benefits. Critically, this bipartisan legislation will also streamline the VA’s presumption decision making process to avoid further delay in care.
“Honoring veterans means doing everything to ensure they have access to the care and benefits they have earned. For decades, countless toxic-exposed veterans have suffered and died from health conditions stemming from handling burn pits, radioactive materials, and everything in between,” said Congresswoman Hayes. “The Honoring Our PACT Act is a monumental legislative package to finally recognize military toxic exposure as a cost of war. I am pleased my bill, the Palomares Veterans Act, was included in the final text to provide Palomares veterans and their families with the care and benefits they deserve. This legislation brings us one step closer to preventing generations of future veterans from suffering and making treatment more accessible.”
Leaders from 11 Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) including the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. (VFW), Disabled American Veterans (DAV), The American Legion (TAL), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), Blinded Veterans Association (BVA), Minority Veterans of America (MVA), and Burn Pits 360, among others, support the comprehensive bipartisan package.
In January 1966, a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber collided with a U.S. Air Force KC-135 tanker aircraft over the Spanish village of Palomares, resulting in one of the largest nuclear disasters in history and causing radiation exposure in approximately 1,600 U.S. airmen who responded to the crash. These airmen responded with little to no protective clothing and no warning of potential dangers. They were ordered to clear contaminated crops, shovel tainted soil into burn pits, and consume the local water and food – placing them in direct contact with large amounts of plutonium. Declassified reports from the Atomic Energy Commission show more than 3 billion micrograms of plutonium were released following the crash. Even one microgram of plutonium is considered harmful to the human body.
Many airmen who participated in the cleanup are suffering from health conditions, likely the result of their close contact with plutonium dust. However, the VA does not list Palomares as a radiation-risk activity under current regulations. The VA continues to rely on flawed methodology and data provided by the Air Force that assigns Palomares veterans radiation dose estimates too low to find their conditions are more likely radiogenic than not. This legislative package seeks to correct that.
Full bill text can be found here.
Congresswoman Jahana Hayes sits on the Committees on Education & Labor and Agriculture and proudly represents Connecticut’s 5th District. She was a public school teacher in Connecticut for more than 15 years and was recognized in 2016 as the National Teacher of the Year.