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Navajo Organizers and Miners Are Fighting for Compensation for Uranium Exposure

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act has failed to justly compensate Navajo communities affected by nuclear testing.

Red Water Pond Road Community in New Mexico, on January 13, 2020.

Next July, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) is scheduled to sunset, shutting off compensation to the thousands of people exposed to radioactive materials during the Cold War-era uranium boom, either from nuclear testing fallout or mining efforts. Advocates are currently pushing for the RECA Amendments Act which would extend the bill for another 19 years, increase compensation amounts, and include additional eligible groups of miners and communities living downwind of nuclear tests.

Despite what the U.S. government owes to people who’ve suffered from radiation exposure, if RECA is successfully extended and expanded, it will have been due to the efforts of the most impacted. For Indigenous communities and uranium miners who have been excluded from existing RECA legislation, that fight has been never-ending. It has also cost them money, time, and opportunities lost to the ever-deepening damage of government-sanctioned uranium mining and nuclear testing. While their efforts will hopefully culminate in passing the amendment, the road to getting there has been winding and not without myriad losses.

A Troubling Inheritance

Traditionally, there had been no Navajo word for “radiation,” and its absence from the languages and cultures of affected Indigenous communities speaks to how industries like uranium mining introduced a new threat to their lives and lands — a threat they must still contend with to this day.

During the uranium boom, over 90% of all domestic mining occurred on or just outside of the boundaries of Navajo reservations. The accessibility of uranium mines made mining an attractive employment option to many Navajo men despite the meager pay — 1949 pay stubs from Navajo miners showed salaries of 81 cents to $1 an hour. Adjusting for inflation, these salaries would be between a little under $9 to $11 an hour.

The proximity of mines to Navajo reservations meant that entire communities, not just miners, were also exposed to radioactive materials. Materials collected from uranium mining were used to build houses that many Navajo families would call home and nearby waterways, plants, and animal life were also contaminated. Further, traditional environmental practices such as fishing, hunting game, harvesting plants, and rituals like steam baths made Indigenous communities particularly vulnerable to exposure.

The health implications of radiation exposure can range from cancers and skin diseases to respiratory issues and bone deterioration and can even be passed down from generation to generation, creating a web of health complications. Even for children who don’t have health issues stemming from their parents’ radiation exposure, the impact can also be emotional, psychological, and permanent.

Much of Phil Harrison’s life has been shaped by his family and community’s relationship to the uranium mining industry. As an adult, Harrison has served as both vice president and president of the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee. As a child, he was raised primarily in Cove, Arizona, where his father worked in uranium mines operated by Kerr-McGee, a major uranium mining company. Between the late 1940s and 1980s, Kerr-McGee mined over 7 million tons of uranium ore either on or near the Navajo Nation. In 2006, the company ceased operations following its acquisition by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. In 2019, Anandarko was acquired by Occidental Petroleum Corporation. Prism reached out to Occidental for a statement but did not hear back.

“He started work there underground and a lot of those mines there didn’t have any ventilation at all, no safety equipment and no warning whatsoever,” said Harrison. “Back then I guess it was just finding work and getting paid to support the family and I don’t think anybody knew what was going to happen [or] the consequences of radiation exposure.”

Harrison spent most of his childhood away from home attending boarding schools in New Mexico and then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after graduating high school, only to be brought back home by devastating family news: his father was dying from lung cancer.

“I went on leave for 72 hours just to come back and see his last days,” said Harrison.

After being honorably discharged, Harrison learned that other former miners and mining families were facing similar health problems as his father and that the Red Valley Chapter of the Navajo Nation was organizing the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee to seek government compensation for those affected by mining. Harrison joined their advocacy efforts, primarily pushing for the passage of RECA in 1990 and drafting the bill amendments that were passed in 2000. While dedicating his life and time to advocating for former miners and their families has brought real tangible victories, they have not come without personal costs.

“I was taking classes at what they used to call the Navajo Community College for two years but my advocacy was a lot, so it turned out that I did not finish my college,” said Harrison. “Otherwise I would be a doctor right now.”

Barriers to Eligibility

Despite the outsized role that Navajo organizers have played in getting RECA passed and continuously amended, the percentage of Indigenous miners and their loved ones receiving RECA compensation has been devastatingly low. While preparing to testify before Congress about the effects of uranium contamination on people in Navajo Nation, Harrison learned that more non-Indigenous people were receiving RECA compensation than those in Navajo communities for a variety of reasons.

“While we worked on this law to establish this compensation program for our people and were lobbying all the time, non-Indians were getting the higher percentage,” Harrison said.

The disparity is partially due to language barriers as well as RECA’s strict eligibility requirements — many of which culturally misalign with Indigenous ways of life. For one, the original RECA bill excluded smokers under the assumption that it would be impossible to tell if the development of health complications was due to a claimant’s smoking or to their level of radiation exposure. This exclusion however also ruled out potential Navajo claimants who practiced ceremonies that involved pipe smoking — even though, over a lifetime, these rituals amounted to the equivalent of smoking less than a single pack per day for one year.

Amendments to RECA passed in 2000 removed this non-smoking requirement, but some key barriers still remain. Perhaps most pressing is that many potential Navajo claimants don’t have the vital records required to file RECA claims such as birth records, access to medical records, or government-recognized marriage records that would be required for widowers of miners to apply for compensation as well. Perhaps the most egregious of the eligibility requirements, Harrison says, is proof of residence. RECA claimants must have proof that they lived in specific designated areas during certain time periods.

“[But] nobody had land records and of course the federal government doesn’t [designate] the Navajo Nation as federal trust land,” said Harrison. “I used to say that our people did not come from Australia or somewhere else, they’ve been here for years and years. Why are you asking for proof of residency?”

Harrison says that allowing Navajo chapter officials or community leaders to write affidavits affirming where and when claimants lived would create a workaround for those who don’t currently have the necessary records. Harrison and other advocates hope other types of documentation such as voting records, church membership, and ranching records will also be accepted. Organizers would also like to see the addition of people living in counties such as San Juan and Montezuma in New Mexico and Cortez, Colorado, added to the list of eligible downwinders through the RECA Amendments Act.

“There’s just no way the radioactive fallout stops at the state line and says ‘hey, here’s the state line, we need to go back,” said Harrison.

Similarly, Harrison wants RECA to expand the list of compensable illnesses specifically amongst miners to include prostate, urine, and renal cancers, renal failure, and melanoma. Some experts have pushed back on this demand, arguing that renal failure is not radiogenic and cannot be developed as a result of radioactive exposure, though research has shown a correlation between radiation and renal injury or impairment. The American Cancer Society, however, does not include renal failure, melanoma, or uterine or prostate cancer in their list of cancers that have been proven to be correlated to radiation exposure based on studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. Harrison finds these exclusions troubling.

“I don’t know who is God out there back East that says that melanoma, uterine cancers, and prostate cancers are not radiogenic whereas ovarian cancer is compensable,” said Harrison. “I don’t understand who sets these policies, who knows us inside and out. Whatever our body ingests, it impacts every organ in our body.”

Harrison knows this from direct experience. He spent four months as a remediation worker with the Department of Energy and suffers from health complications such as radial damage as a result. However, remediation workers for the Department of Energy are currently excluded under RECA. Harrison hopes to see other types of affected workers like himself become eligible for compensation under the RECA Amendments Act.

The highest priority amendment that Harrison identifies, however, is the inclusion of miners who worked in the uranium industry after 1971 in the list of those eligible for RECA compensation. Their glaring exclusion has confounded many who are in support of victims compensation.

Left Behind

By the early 1970s, the now-defunct United States Atomic Energy Commission stockpiled so much uranium ore that they no longer had to procure it from domestic mines. In 1971, the federal government ceased purchasing uranium for atomic weapons production, making private companies the sole purchaser of domestically mined uranium. Consequently, miners who worked within the uranium industry after 1971 aren’t eligible for existing RECA compensation as the legislation was crafted to serve miners “that were providing uranium for the primary use and benefit of the nuclear weapons program of the United States Government.”

But workers who mined and milled after 1971 say they were exposed to the same hazards as their predecessors but were offered few, if any, additional protections and that the U.S. government owes them restitution as well. Many are suffering the same health defects or have lost their loved ones to the same diseases and ailments as pre-1972 miners. Much like Navajo communities, they largely have had to be their own advocates. They’ve found consistent leadership in people like Linda Evers.

“I just don’t understand why we’re even having this conversation,” said Evers. “No safety procedures changed between December 31, 1971, and January 1, 1972. Nothing changed.”

Evers was living in Kansas working as a seamstress in 1993 when she went to her doctor for what she thought was a dislocated thumb. Evers was told her thumb couldn’t be repositioned because the entire joint had worn away. Without any family history of joint disease, and given her young age — Evers was 35 at the time — the orthopedic surgeon inquired if she had ever been exposed to radiation, explaining how just a minute of exposure can be toxic.

Evers’ exposure was far more than a minute — she had worked as a uranium miner for Kerr-McGee, the same company that operated the mines Harrison’s father toiled in, for nine years. At 18 years old, Evers had just graduated from high school and was attracted to the $7-per-hour salary. She first worked on the labor gang, a group of “newbies” who performed odd jobs around the mill like shoveling ore onto conveyor belts, fixing pipe leaks, or chipping corrosion off the inside of acid tanks.

“Every few days my clothes were chewed up and I had to put a new set of clothes on, because the acid would just eat them up,” Evers said. “We were told that if you get dizzy you can come out of the tank to get some air. The safety was substandard, it was really all about profits.”

Evers was eventually transferred to crushing yellowcake to be sent to the mill — this was where she spent the remainder of her nine years with Kerr-McGee. Evers described it as “a dusty job,” with only one small fan barely offering ventilation. She and her coworkers were each given one paper mask per month, which became completely ineffective in a matter of hours. Instead they would create makeshift masks using bandanas to shield them from yellowcake dust.

“Nobody told us that we were basically overdosed with radiation,” Evers said. “There was no talk of radiation in our safety meetings. It was standard, basic first aid and there was never ever any mention of radiation overexposure.”

Evers only began to realize how profoundly her work was affecting her when she became a mother. She worked in the mines during both of her pregnancies. Her son, born in 1978, had a birth defect that a surgeon said could potentially be attributed to radiation exposure, but her primary doctor dismissed those claims. Evers now points out that this doctor was also hired by Kerr-McGee.

Three years later, Evers gave birth to a daughter with health defects that required five surgeries before she was 4 years old. She quit working for Kerr-McGee the same day her surgeon explained that radiation was the source of her daughter’s ailments. In the decades since, skin rashes, sleep apnea, and gradual loss of eyesight have emerged as other daily battles that Evers must also contend with.

Evers moved back to New Mexico and learned that other post-’71 uranium miners were discussing how they could seek restitution. As part of their efforts, they created surveys — one in 2007 and a follow-up in 2009 — to assess the demographics of these miners, whether any safety precautions and health warnings were given to them, and what specific health problems had arisen for them in the years since. Among the 1,302 survey responses, they found that an overwhelmingly large percentage of miners described themselves in fair or poor health; respiratory conditions, chronic skin blisters, and digestive problems were some of the most prevalent health issues. The survey also attempted to assess the impact of mining on workers’ families. Of those surveyed, 96% reported that they were never advised to avoid laundering their work clothes at home and many female mine workers and spouses of miners reported having miscarriages or fertility problems. Evers admits that it was a flawed study but it remains the only comprehensive attempt at surveying post-’71 miners to date.

“We’re a bunch of old miners and millers, we’re not professional researchers or scientists by any means,” Evers said. “So many people stepped up to criticize [the survey] and not one person offered to help so we went with what we had.”

The road to getting potential compensation through an amended RECA has also become increasingly lonely. Evers said that every year more and more post-’71 miners have either passed away as a result of their health complications or have begun to rely solely on her to keep this work afloat. A coalition that once numbered around 35 former miners has since whittled down to just Evers and one other person who has been assisting her.

“Our effort right now is me writing letters and calling Washington five [times] a week on phone calls, 15 a week on letters, paying for it out of my own pocket,” Evers said. “I live on disability and that’s about as far as it goes.”

Dying to Get Compensated

The work that Harrison and Evers have done has been instrumental but not without substantial costs to their personal lives and finances. Penning letters, placing calls, and traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with legislators and lobby for RECA were expenses paid out of their own pockets and those of other community advocates. Bake sales, disability payments, and more recently, a T-shirt company started by Harrison, have primarily funded their fight for compensation. The unwillingness of elected officials to offer any assistance has been particularly difficult for Harrison considering that much pushback against extending RECA centers on its projected cost—a point that he says shouldn’t matter. Evers shared similar grievances, particularly around the lack of urgency from legislators.

“At the end of the day poor, sick, and dying workers don’t have any money to put in politicians’ pockets and it’s really too bad because we don’t have a movie star that will go cry on the Hill for us,” said Evers. “Seems like that’s what we need worse than anything.”

Despite coming to this advocacy from different entry points, Harrison and Evers also share frustrations over why every impacted community is tasked with proving how nuclear testing and mining have caused them damage. That burden of proof is particularly exhausting because of how long the government has had the data and information confirming that harm. As RECA currently stands, administrative and institutional barriers still prevent even eligible claimants from getting enough support and receiving it in a timely way.

“The laws of the compensation program, they’re very stringent — you have to be dying to get compensated,” said Harrison. “Typically a miner receives a payment and three or four or five months down the road, he dies. He doesn’t even collect all these benefits.”

The ability for this legislation to truly be meaningful can only come if the support it offers extends to everyone impacted and is offered expediently — otherwise it will always fall short of actual justice. So long as the government continues to drag its feet, eligible RECA claimants will find themselves jumping through endless loopholes in their race toward adequate compensation. They may also continue to only reach the finish line in their final days. Until lawmakers decide that full atonement outweighs the legislation’s cost, this decades-old damage will only compound.

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