Gallup Independent

RECA bill brings hopes for 'justice'

By Kathy Helms
Dine Bureau

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

WINDOW ROCK – Ever since he became a member of Congress in 1999, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has been fighting to bring justice to the issue of compensation for uranium workers and downwinders.

“My father had a 30 year crusade for justice in the case of the miners and the downwinders, and during the course of that 30 years, he probably involved most of our family. While I was in private practice I worked with him on many of these cases,” Udall said last week regarding his introduction of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2010. Udall's father, Stewart Udall, who passed away last month at age 90, was a former Secretary of the Interior and a strong advocate of compensation for Navajo uranium miners. He was instrumental in getting the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act of 1990 passed and testified to its inadequacies at a June 5, 1993, congressional hearing in Shiprock.

“There have been a number of problems over the years from affidavits not being accepted to difficulties in terms of culture,” Udall said Tuesday. “Many of the things that were asked of Navajo Indians and other Native Americans, they weren't able to provide, and so their claims couldn't go in.

“Now, we've reached the point where there clearly are some additional problems. Post-1971 miners should be covered,” he said. “Uranium core drillers also should be covered and they weren't in the past.” With bipartisan support, Udall is hopeful they can bring the legislation up to date “and make sure justice is done in the long run.”

Liz Lucero and Linda Evers, president and vice president of the Post '71 Uranium Workers Committee, said Udall and co-sponsors of the legislation made history Monday for uranium workers everywhere.

“It's just amazing to me that it's gone on for so long,” Evers said, adding that she and Lucero have only been working for four years on getting support for Post-'71 uranium workers. “There are folks out there that have been working 10 to 15 years on this. Why does it take the government so long to come around and do the right thing?”

The women said they and all the other people that have helped along the way are very happy to see progress being made for the people that have suffered for so long. “This is the beginning of what should have been done for these workers a long time ago. We’re very hopeful that the legislators will see this amendment through to the end, and do the right thing for this group of people.”

The committee expressed their thanks and prayers that all of the co-sponsors of the bill – Sens. Jeff Bingaman, Mike Crapo, Mark Udall, James Risch, Michael Bennet and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan will have the strength to get the bill passed.

Gilbert Badoni, president of the Navajo Dependents of Uranium Workers Committee, will accompany 80-year-old Bettie Yazzie of Sweetwater to New York May 11 to testify about the impacts of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation and its people during the 18th session of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development.

“Bettie is an elder from Sweetwater. She had several miscarriages and lost her husband to lung cancer,” he said. “She has had numerous extended family members also diagnosed with cancer.”

Second-generation dependents of uranium workers who possibly have some form of health ailment associated with radiation exposure are now beginning to surface, Badoni says. His second-oldest daughter from his first marriage was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

“As you look at the mortality rate you begin to see the younger folks being diagnosed with cancer. Guess what? They all come from uranium-working families. We just need to somehow show that to the world.”

It's probably going to take a study specifically for the dependents to wake up the lawmakers, he said. “They know what uranium can do to a person, but that's still not enough for them. I think they're in denial. They're hoping it's going to go away. But guess what? It's not going to go away.”

Udall said that over the years he has been involved with RECA, one of the biggest questions has always been from the families in terms of whether they were contaminated:

“Are the diseases we are getting a result of our breadwinner coming into the house with dirty mining clothes which were contaminated by radiation? Did we bring water in and other things that were contaminated by radiation and use them in our homes, and has that had a health impact?”

The legislation would authorize $3 million for five years for epidemiological research on the impacts of uranium development on communities and families of uranium workers. The funds would be allocated to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to award grants to universities and non-profits to carry out the research.

“It may well be that we find out that the level of exposure wasn't too bad. But we should ask the questions and we should delve into this and find out,” Udall said.

Last fall, Badoni and a group of about 20 elders went to Washington to seek funding for health studies for the dependents of former uranium workers. They swamped Udall's office.

“He took the time out from the Senate floor, although he was busy, and went back to his office and met with us for about 30 minutes. That was really something else. That was a treat for us. In my statement I asked for a non-governmental entity, a university or medical research facility that was not affiliated with the government to do the studies.” Hearing that funding for those studies is in the bill “just made my day,” Badoni said.

It was the plight of the uranium miners and their families that brought Chris Shuey of Southwest Research and Information Center to Navajo back in the 1970s. Shuey first visited Red Valley about the same time Udall's father did. At that time, Shuey was a freelance journalist who wrote about the health and safety problems Navajos were facing.

“To get justice for people who worked in the uranium industry continues to take generations. This a great step that Udall and others have taken,” Shuey said. “But there's a lot of work to get this passed. Getting it introduced is one step. Getting the next round of RECA amendments passed is a huge step, but it's absolutely necessary. And it's necessary for the people who worked after 1971 because it looks like they're just as sick, and there's not actually enough study of their health status.” Marguerito “Mag” Martinez worked in the mines for Kerr-McGee from 1949 to 1985. Though sick and elderly, he has been a staunch supporter for those who worked the mines and mills after 1971.

“We've had Post-71 miners that have died already of radiation. What did the country say, 'We didn't buy any uranium after 1971? ' That's just a cheap-ass excuse not to pay. They left all the radiation right here and we're eating it up,” he said. Preston J. Truman, long-time activist and advocate for downwinders, saw his first atom bomb test in 1955 from his home in southwestern Utah. At the age of 17, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. Truman said Udall's bill, filed on the 20th anniversary of the original final RECA bill, is probably even more significant than the first.

“It greatly helps fix the many loopholes that tragically let deserving Native Americans fall through the cracks in applying with no recourse. It also once and for all forces the government to accept and compensate the tens of thousands of other downwinders across the West who received as much, and often more radiation than those of us in the pitiful few rural counties covered in the original act.

“For years, many of us from those 'politically acceptable counties' have demanded something be done to expand RECA, calling loudly for JUSTICE, not JUST US! Finally that call has been heard.”