Navajo Organizers and Miners Are Fighting for Compensation for Uranium Exposure

Next July, the Radiation Exposure Complementary Act (RECA), which provides compensation for radiation exposure, is set to sunset. thousands of people exposedTo radioactive materials during the Cold War-era Cold War-era Uranium Boom, either from nuclear testing fallouts or mining efforts. Advocates are pushing for the RECA Amendments ActThis would allow for the extension of the bill for another 19-years, increase compensation amounts and include additional eligible communities and miners living downwind from 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. The fight for inclusion of RECA legislation has been a never-ending battle for uranium miners and Indigenous communities. It has also cost them money, time, and opportunities lost to the ever-deepening damage of government-sanctioned uranium mining and nuclear testing. Although they will hopefully be able to pass the amendment, their journey has been long and difficult with many 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.

Over 90% of domestic mining was done within the Navajo reservation boundaries during the uranium boom. 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. These salaries are adjusted for inflation and range from a little less than $9 to $11 per hour.

Because mines were close to Navajo reservations, radioactive materials were also emitted to entire communities. Many Navajo families used uranium mined materials to build their homes. The waterways, plants and animals nearby were also contaminated. Traditional environmental practices like fishing, hunting, harvesting plants, and rituals such as steam baths made Indigenous communities more vulnerable to contamination.

Radiation exposure can cause skin and cancers, as well as respiratory problems and bone deterioration. This can lead to a host 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. Harrison served as vice president and president of Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee as an adult. He was raised in Cove in Arizona by his father, who worked in the Kerr-McGee uranium mines. Kerr-McGee produced more than 7 million tons of uranium from the Navajo Nation between the 1940s and 1980s. After being acquired by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, the company ceased operation in 2006. Occidental Petroleum Corporation acquired Anandarko in 2019. Prism tried to reach Occidental for a statement, but was not able to get a response.

“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 his childhood away at home, attending boarding school in New Mexico. He then enlisted with the U.S. Air Force as a high school graduate. Unfortunately, he was brought back by terrible family news: Harrison’s father had died of lung cancer.

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

Harrison was honorably discharged and learned that other ex-miners and families were suffering similar health problems to his father. The Red Valley Chapter of Navajo Nation was also organizing the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee, which seeks government compensation for all those who have been affected by mining. Harrison was a part of their advocacy efforts. He pushed for the passage RECA in 1990 and helped to draft the amendments that were passed into law in 2000. While he has enjoyed tangible victories for former miners, and their families, his efforts to advocate for them have not been 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 enormous role played by Navajo organizers in getting RECA passed, and continually amended, the percentage Indigenous miners and their families receiving RECA compensation is shockingly low. Harrison learned that RECA compensation was more widely being paid to non-Indigenous people than it was to Navajo community members as Harrison was preparing for testimony before Congress on the effects uranium contamination has had on the people of Navajo Nation.

“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.

While the RECA Amendments passed in 2000 removed the non-smoking requirement. However, there are still some significant barriers. 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. Harrison states that the most important eligibility requirement is proof of residency. RECA claimants must show proof that they resided in certain areas during specific 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 that other types of documentation like voting records, church membership and ranching records will be accepted. The RECA Amendments Act would allow for the inclusion of eligible downwinders from counties like San Juan and Montezuma, New Mexico, and Cortez in Colorado.

“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.

Harrison also wants RECA’s list of members to be expanded. compensable illnesses specifically amongst minersThis includes prostate, urine, renal, renal cancers, renal failure, melanoma, and melanomas. Although research has shown a link between radiation and renal injury, or impairment, some experts disagree with this demand. However, the American Cancer Society does not include renal failure, prostate cancer, melanoma, uterine, or uterine cancer in their guidelines. list of cancersThese symptoms have been linked to radiation exposure, based on research with Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims. These exclusions are troubling for Harrison.

“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 direct experience. He was a remediation worker for the Department of Energy for four months and is now suffering from health complications like radial damage. RECA currently does not cover remediation workers for Department of Energy. Harrison hopes to see other affected workers like him become eligible for compensation under RECA Amendments Act.

Harrison recognizes that Harrison is recommending the inclusion of miners working in the uranium sector after 1971 in the list eligible for RECA compensation. Many who support victims compensation have been confounded by their glaring exclusion.

Be left behind

The now-defunct United States Atomic Energy Commission had so much uranium that they could no longer obtain it from domestic mines by the 1970s. The federal government stopped purchasing uranium for nuclear weapons production in 1971. This made private companies the sole purchasers 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.”

Workers who mined or milled after 1971 claim that they were exposed the same hazards as their predecessors. However, they were offered very few additional protections and the U.S. government owes restitution. Many of these workers are suffering from the same health problems or have lost loved ones to the same diseases as pre-1972 miners. Similar to Navajo communities they have had to be their 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 a Kansas seamstress who was living in Kansas in 1993 when she went to see her doctor about 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. Evers, then 18, had just graduated high school and was attracted by 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 was each given a paper mask every month. It became useless in just a few hours. They would instead make their own masks from bandanas to protect 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 was only able to see how much her work affected her after becoming a mother. She worked in the mining industry during both of her pregnancies. Her 1978-born son had a birth defect that a surgeon suggested could be caused by radiation exposure. However, her primary doctor rejected those claims. Evers now points to Kerr McGee’s hiring of this doctor.

Evers gave rise to a girl with health issues that required five operations before she was four years old. She quit working for Kerr-McGee the same day her surgeon explained that radiation was the source of her daughter’s ailments. Evers has had to contend with skin rashes, sleep disorders, and gradual loss in vision over the years.

Evers moved back to New Mexico and learned that other post-’71 uranium miners were discussing how they could seek restitution. They also created a website. 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 them: 1,302 survey responsesThey found that a large number of miners were in fair to poor health. Chronic skin blisters, respiratory problems, and digestive problems were the most common health issues. The survey also attempted to assess the impact of mining on workers’ families. 96% of those surveyed said they were never told to wash their work clothes at home. Many female miners and spouses reported having miscarriages and 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.”

It is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain compensation through an amended RECA. 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. The once-common coalition of around 35 former miners is now down to Evers and one other person who has been helping 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.”

Wanting to be compensated

Although the work of Harrison and Evers has been very beneficial, it also came at a significant cost to their personal and financial lives. They paid for their travel expenses to Washington, D.C. to lobby for RECA and to write letters, place calls, and to send out letters. Harrison’s T-shirt company, disability payments, and bake sales have all contributed to 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 had similar grievances about the lack of urgency on the part of 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.”

Harrison and Evers came to this advocacy from different points of entry. However, they share frustrations about why every affected community must prove that nuclear testing and mining caused them harm. This burden of proof is especially difficult given the length of time the government has been in power. data and information confirming that harm. As RECA stands currently, administrative and institution barriers still prevent eligible claimants receiving sufficient support and receiving it in an efficient manner.

“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. As long as the government drags its feet, eligible RECA claimsants will continue to have to navigate through endless loopholes in order to receive adequate compensation. They may not reach the finish line until their last days. Until lawmakers decide that full atonement outweighs the legislation’s cost, this decades-old damage will only compound.