WASHINGTON – Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (CT-05) celebrates the Senate passage of the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, a legislative package to address the full range of medical 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, was included in the final text and will become law. The bill removes barriers to compensation for the veterans who responded to the 1966 nuclear accident in Palomares, Spain.
“I am happy the Senate has finally taken action to deliver much needed assistance to veterans who suffered toxic exposure while enlisted,” said Congresswoman Hayes. “Palomares veterans and their families have waited over 55 years for relief from the radiation exposure they endured during service. I look forward to working with the VA to ensure a smooth implementation of this law and faithfully deliver care to our veterans. The PACT Act will honor the service and sacrifice of veterans in Connecticut’s Fifth District.”
The PACT Act passed in the House in early July with a vote of 342-88 and now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature.
Specifically, the bill will:
- Provide health care for over 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans;
- Establish a presumption of service connection for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers related to burn pits/airborne hazards exposure;
- Provide extension of combat eligibility for health care from 5 to 10 years with a one-year open enrollment period for those veterans who missed their window;
- Expand Agent Orange exposure to veterans who served in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia; and
- Streamline the VA’s review process for establishing toxic exposure presumptions, and require VA to conduct outreach and provide resources to toxic-exposed veterans, while also providing standardized training to improve toxic exposure disability claim adjudications.
The Palomares Veterans Act
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 danger. 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 did not list the Palomares crash as a radiation-risk activity due to flawed methodology and data. This legislative package will correct that.