Gallup Independent

Downwinder says med staff told him to 'come back when you're sicker'

By Kathy Helms
Gallup Independent

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz. -- At Spirit Mountain Ranch in Flagstaff this past weekend there was a "one in 10 million occurrence," the birth of a white buffalo calf. Some Native Americans would see that as a sign of rebirth in a time of trouble.

At noon Tuesday (PDT) the National Nuclear Security Administration's Los Alamos National Laboratory conducted "Armando," the first underground nuclear "experiment" since tests were conducted in September 2002. That month, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory conducted subcritical experiment, Piano, on Sept. 19. Seven days later, on Sept. 26, Los Alamos scientists detonated "Rocco." To date, 20 subcritical experiments have been conducted at Nevada Test Site. Some Native Americans also would see that as a sign, especially downwinders caught in nuclear testing during the Cold War.

Last Tuesday at noon, a National Research Council committee heard from Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., grassroots uranium workers from Navajo, Acoma Pueblo and Laguna, downwinders from Kingman Ariz., and as far away as Guam. All but one of them told the committee that they, their family members and friends were either sick, dead, or dying. The one exception was a Navajo man who said he was told by medical staff that he wasn't sick enough yet to apply for compensation, to come back in August when perhaps he would be sicker. In Navajo, that amounts to a death wish, he said.

The committee, which is under the mandate of Congress to assess scientific evidence associating radiation exposure with cancer and other illnesses, was asked to take back a simple message to "Washingdoon": "That 'compassionate payment' you promised back in 1990 when you passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to make up for knowingly and willfully risking our lives -- it's time to pay up. And we're not taking any more I.O.U.s."

Rena Harrison Ellis of Tonalea, Ariz., a Navajo downwinder and daughter of a uranium miner, is also a survivor of breast cancer. Born in September 1953 in Chinle, Ariz., she moved a couple hours away to Tonalea after getting married. A lifetime resident of Apache and Coconino counties, she still is having trouble proving her existence and residence and therefore is not eligible for compensation.

Ellis, whose testimony was read into the record last week before the committee, said she was born prematurely because both parents were exposed to the uranium mines.

"Like many other dependent children of miners, as I grew older, I experienced many different types of sickness. I was underweight, weak, had seizures, major rashes and sores all over my body, and major coughing spells ...

"Uranium radiation does not kill you outright. It has attacked my body and the genetic damage it has caused will be passed on to future generations of my children and grandchildren. Too many of us have become sick and too many of us have had to bury our loved ones.

"I have been sliced, radiated, and coughed till I am blue in the face. I am one of the unlucky ones that was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the government decided to blast away those testing bombs," Ellis said.

"We deserve justice. We deserve more research, and in the name of God, we demand that we never, ever again be guinea pigs or subjects of government sponsored atomic testing and have the federal government play dumb about it.

"The federal government now owes me and my children and those that are suffering, to study the full health effects of nuclear testing and to compensate the downwinders fairly with $100,000, and to provide them with medical benefits. The federal government owes us scientific answers. The agony of living with cancer fares out to more than a measly $50,000," she said.

Ellis wonders whether she will ever be compensated. Though she has filed for compensation, she has been unable to prove her residency because: She was born at home, the Bureau of Indian Affairs destroyed the school records at Many Farms where she attended, and the land use permit from BIA Natural Resources which her grandfather transferred to her dad in 1941 is not acceptable to the U.S. Department of Justice.

"I am expected to have had a land use permit in my name, even though I was just a child growing up," she said.

"I am alive and standing right here in front of you and yet the federal Department of Justice tells me that I do not exist and I do not count," she said.

Tuesday's underground nuclear test in Nevada was designed to examine the behavior of plutonium as it is strongly shocked by forces produced by chemical high explosives. The test is subcritical, according to NNSA. "That is, no critical mass is formed and no self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction can occur; thus, there is no nuclear explosion."

Subcritical experiments produce essential scientific data and technical information used to help maintain the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile, according to NNSA. The "Armando" was conducted at the U1a Complex, an underground laboratory made up of a series of tunnels with small excavated experiment alcoves mined at the base of a vertical shaft about 960 feet below surface.

Anti-nuclear groups believe the tests might be seen as flying in the face of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which has never been ratified.

Two weeks ago, 83 members of Congress who signed on to a letter to the House Armed Services committee calling for elimination of the nuclear "bunker buster," said pursuing new nuclear weapons sends a "dangerously mixed signal to the rest of the world and erodes our nonproliferation credibility."