Gallup Independent

RECA Hearing - Part 1

May 19, 2004
Gallup Independent

By Kathy Helms
Dine´ Bureau

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - To the uninitiated, the parade of former uranium workers and downwinders who offered testimony to the National Research Council committee on Tuesday appeared to present a pattern. They were either sick, cancer survivors, or had lost an extensive list of family members to radiation-related illnesses.

Their stories and impassioned pleadings to the panel to intercede on their behalf in Washington were simple and sincere, some messages delivered while choking back tears. But the federal government is not known for its compassion when it comes to issuing compensation checks for radiation victims. And while most members of the national panel appeared interested in the testimonies offered – at least for the first seven or eight hours – it is too early to tell whether the committee went away with overwhelming evidence they can use.

The National Research Council committee has been charged with assessing recent biologoical, epidemiologic, and related scientific evidence associating radiation exposure with cancers or other impacts on human health. Another part of their task is to determine whether the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) should be expanded, and how services for exposed persons can be improved.

But if an interim report issued by the committee – and taken to task several times Tuesday by medical professionals – is any indication, it could be an uphill battle for those affected by radiation-related illnesses.

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., in testimony before the committee, said the Navajo Nation feels that further measures need to be undertaken to address cultural justice for his people. "There are unresolved issues that hinder our Navajo people who are trying to press their compensation claims, that not only result in cultural injustices, but a perpetration of injustice of making it difficult for Navajo miners, widows, and downwinders to qualify under intense federal regulations," he said.

The president expounded on several issues he brought up during a Washington, D.C., hearing before the committee earlier this year – issues he believes are most cumbersome and debilitating when it comes to processing compensation claims for the Dine´.

Many Navajo uranium miners who suffer from diseases compensable under RECA do not qualify for benefits because their documented radiation exposures and employment histories fall below current RECA thresholds.

"RECA's criteria needs to be revisited again because there are miners who have had high exposure to radiation and developed lung disease, but still do not meet the 40 working level months," the president said. They should be provided the same opportunity as millers and transport workers to meet the exposure requirement by proving that they at least worked one year, he said.

"The proof of residency issue has been most adverse, perpetrating cultural injustice. Navajo land use permits, grazing permits, marriage licenses, school and hospital documents should be ideal documents to satisfy the requirements," according to President Shirley. However, problems persist.

"The Bureau of Indian Affairs has destroyed school records, leaving Navajo claimants disengaged," he said. "If records are destroyed, then neighbors, relatives, school officials, etc. certified testimonies should be acceptable, whether it is to prove their domicile or school attendance."

Lucy Todecheenie, a cancer survivor, provided testimony at the end of the day which aptly illustrated the presidentıs point. Todecheenie applied for compensation after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994. She grew up in Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., where she still resides. As a child she attended a nearby Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school. Now in her 60s, records of her attendance no longer exists. Her application for compensation is being held up because she is unable to prove residency to the government's satisfaction due to "not having a post office in my community before 1960," she said. "Our mail came through the Shiprock, New Mexico Post Office where letters were stamped 'New Mexico'."

"The traders handed letters to us at the store after they picked up the mail in Shiprock. It is hard to prove the residency for those of us that are living in that area. I tried asking other people I had written to if they had any of my letters, and I cannot come up with anything that shows Teec Nos Pos, Ariz. So thatıs what I'm up against," she said.

Navajo land use permits and grazing permits are not acceptable by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) unless the permit holder is filing. "The nuclear family members are completely left out," President Shirley said. "The permit would have to also depict the dates of 1951-58 and July of 1962. ... If the permit does not depict these years, then the permit is not honored."

The BIA issues only one grazing or land use permit per family, however, this is not recognized by DOJ. If a nuclear family member files for compensation, that individual would not be eligible beause their name was not on the grazing permit. "The nuclear family shares in on the grazing permit and it is handed down to family members," Shirley said. Many of those now seeking compensation were but children when the family's grazing permit was issued.

The Department of Justice also refused to recognize traditional Navajo marriages, according to the president. "Navajo marriages are conducted by medicine people and are sanctified through a ceremony. In this case, a piece of paper (marriage license), a product of European civilization has to be produced in order to qualify for compensation," he said.

The certification barrier of hospital records is a nightmare. "Historically, hospital records have always been considered official and authentic. However, in this case, one federal bureaucracy certifies the records of another federal entity at the request of another third-party bureaucracy," Shirley said, resulting in unnecessary delays and an abundance of resources without additional funding.

The Navajo Nation is requesting that chronic renal failure and renal cancers, including nephritis and kidney tubal tissue injury be included as a compensable disease for miners. "S1515 includes this coverage for millers and transport workers but not for the miners. The millers, transport workers and miners all did the same work, so why is one group of workers left out? It could have been an oversight by Congress similarly as to how Mohave County was left out due to a spelling error," he said.

Recent studies in Canada and Finland have shown that people who drink water containing even low amounts of uranium over long periods of time develop irreversible kidney disease, while other studies have shown that uranium is a "potent renal toxicant," according to the president. "Our Navajo people suffer from a high rate of kidney disease and I am requesting to have the federal government provide funding for medical studies to be conducted in Navajoland."

The president also is seeking a comprehensive medical study for dependents of uranium workers, as well as an environmental and public health impact assessment and study.

Intensive mining operations over the past five decades have left large deposits of uranium and toxic wastes in many Navajo communities. Those communities have asked for assistance in evaluating the environmental and public health impacts, the president said. "If continued exposures to these toxic and radioactive wastes are not addressed, then the federal government could be looking at a whole new generation of RECA claimants."

Kathy Helms – khelms@frontiernet.net