Gallup Independent

Navajo downwinders face uphill battle for RECA compensation

By Kathy Helms
Dine Bureau
Gallup Independent

WINDOW ROCK – Fifteen years ago this past Sunday, the last underground nuclear weapons test took place at Nevada Test Site. The Sept. 23, 1992, blast was one of 928 known nuclear tests conducted by the United States beginning in 1951.

In the years between 1951 and 1963, more than 100 above-ground tests were conducted. The resultant mushroom clouds became a tourist attraction at Las Vegas hotels 63 miles away, and the clouds of radioactive fallout that permeated the atmosphere drifted across the country, creating "hot spots" of radioactivity stretching all the way to New England.

But Vegas wasn't the only place from which the shots were visible. Navajos as far away as Cameron, Ariz., have reported seeing a fiery glow in the sky that could not be attributed to the noonday sun or one of Arizona's brilliant sunsets.

Many Navajos are believed to have been exposed to radioactive fallout, which is presumed to have produced an increased incidence of certain serious diseases, including various types of cancer. But proving that exposure has been nearly impossible, according to Navajo Nation Council Delegate Phil Harrison.

Harrison, the son of a deceased uranium miner, has dedicated much of his life to helping radiation exposure victims and their survivors collect compensation under the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

"We have people that were born and raised here and never went anywhere, and they can't come up with anything so they can't get compensated," Harrison said.

"Residency is a big issue. It's very frustrating. There's nothing that they can find that says they lived there. I mean, these people were not brought in from Japan!"

"Their hogan is there, their sheep corral is there, their relatives are there. They were not relocated. They were born and raised there, and yet we have to come up with an original document to tie them in to a certain designated county," he said.

In 2000 amendments, Congress added certain counties downwind of Nevada Test Site to its list of geographic areas covered under RECA, making Navajo downwinders in Apache, Coconino and Navajo counties in Arizona and San Juan County, Utah, potentially eligible for compensation.

Still, it's an uphill battle.

"They don't have birth certificates, a lot of them don't have marriage certificates; a lot of them don't have immunization records. Navajos never heard of these things until probably the '70s," Harrison said.

"And then there's no such thing as keeping accurate, precise vital records on these people because they were born at home ­ so we've got really nothing to fall back on. They've just made it so hard."

The Department of Justice established the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program in 1992 to begin processing claims. From April 1992 through June 2007, RECP authorized payments totaling $1.2 billion for 18,110 claims. Almost half of the $1.2 billion was paid to downwinders.

The 18,110 claims represented about two-thirds of the 26,550 claims filed since RECP began in April 1992. The remaining one-third, or 7,539 claims, was denied because RECA's eligibility criteria were not satisfied, and 901 were pending adjudication as of June 30, according to a Sept. 7 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

In about 40 percent (2,916) of the claims denied, claimants continued to pursue a compensation award while 1,856 refiled their claims at least once; and 1,048 pursued an administrative appeal.

Harrison said one woman in Western Agency has had her claim rejected twice. Because of the "three strikes, you're out" policy, she is now waiting for a new round of RECA amendments currently being worked on before filing the third time.

In a 1997 report, the National Cancer Institute determined that 90 atmospheric tests at Nevada Test Site deposited high levels of radioactive iodine-131 across a large portion of the United States, especially during 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1957. The doses were large enough to produce up to 75,000 cases of thyroid cancer, the report said.

On the Navajo Nation, according to Harrison, "We're coming across a lot of thyroid disorders." Also notable are the incidences of thyroid cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, and stomach cancer. "There's very few lymphoma, very few multiple myeloma, very few leukemia," he said.

The incidence of cancers related to the reproductive system, which are not covered under RECA, are of concern as well. "Besides the 20 that's listed, some of these are very questionable. It seems to me that they also should be included ­ for the men, prostate cancer; and for women, uterine cancer," he said.

"I just don't know what to say to these people when they say, 'Our body is all exposed. Why are they pinpointing down to a certain primary cancer?' "

On June 3, 2005, Larry Martinez of the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers reported to the Navajo Nation Council that 176 Navajos and approximately 20 Hopis had been approved to receive RECA compensation for downwinders as of April 20, 2005.

Martinez said the New Mexico Tumor Registry had recorded more than 2,000 Navajos and more than 250 Hopis born before July 1, 1962, with documented RECA-compensable cancers who might be eligible for benefits under the downwinder provisions.