Red Valley Keeps An Eye On The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act
Editorial Note: I think the most reprehensible thing in these award-winning articles by Kathy Helms is that NO ONE - the mine owners, the governments, the scientists, nor the medical profession - ever told the Navajo people or anyone who worked in the uranium mines of the dangers of radioactive poisoning and how to protect themselves against getting the cancers and health problems that are, now, so prevalent in the area.
It is equally reprehensible that the mine owners were ALLOWED to simply walk away from the mines when they were closed and not made to be responsible for cleaning up the uranium waste and allowing it to just lie there and slowly seep into the ground water, poisoning the earth and every living thing around it.
By Kathy Helms
RED VALLEY - In 2003 Phil Harrison and members of the Navajo Nation began the process to amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Progress has been slow, and Harrison predicts work on the amendment will continue for the next two years.
Harrison, a Navajo Nation Council delegate representing Red Valley and Cove chapters, presented community residents a status report Sunday at Red Valley Chapter on the efforts of the RECA lobbying team. Next month, Harrison and lobbyists from Killian, Guthro & Jensen of Grand Junction will return to Washington.
“In 2003 we had a big meeting in Shiprock. The outcome of that meeting is people are not satisfied with the law,” Harrison said.
In September 2004, Killian and staff attended a roundtable meeting in Washington requested by U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi. They returned in September 2005 to attend a lobbying meeting, and in June 2006 met with aides to congressmen from Arizona, Utah and Colorado.
Last November, they presented U.S. Reps. Tom Udall, Jim Matheson and Renzi with the requested changes to RECA and met this past May with the U.S. Attorney General’s Office in Washington and a Udall aide regarding draft legislation requesting the amendments.
FIGHT FOR COMPENSATION
Earl Saltwater Jr., displaying a book of documents about 5-inches thick he submitted to federal agencies in Washington and the Department of Labor in Denver, encouraged everyone submitting claims to send copies, keep their original documents and make them into a book so they will have records.
“I asked my primary doctor to list all of the diseases that I have. I have a heart attack, diabetes, lung problems - the terminology is too hard for me to pronounce all those words,” he said.
Saltwater’s list of compensable diseases under Part A of RECA include: pulmonary fibrosis, silicosis, fibrosis of the lung and pneumoconiosis. Other documents in his book list additional ailments.
“I received some money, yes. I got paid from the uranium - $100,000, and then $50,000. I ain’t going to deny that. But I had to fight for it. I went to Washington. I cussed the hell out of them. Also, I wrote it down, a lot of my testimony in here – there’d be about nine pages of that. They denied me the first time. I disagreed. I appealed.
“If you really know what you want, you have to fight. They ain’t going to give it to you easy. It’s not going to fall, the money, out of the sky. Don’t expect that. It’s never going to happen.”
Saltwater said that despite having only a high school education, “I stood up for myself. I don’t have no attorneys. I had direct contact with the Department of Labor. Before that, I went to Washington directly and I talked to them because I don’t want to get used to saying, ‘Sha’, sha’, sha’, sha’, ‘do it for me.’ If you don’t speak for yourself, you won’t go anywhere’.”
Saltwater said he worked six months in the mines. But the way the feds looked at it, based on wages, it was three months and 12 days. “I made $1.70 a hour. I can prove it. It’s in here,” he said, waving his book. He fought and won.
"My father owned a dump truck. He used it to haul uranium, and also as the family truck. We hauled wood, wire, we went to town in that dump truck. We’d go to Shiprock Fair in that dump truck and we’d sleep in the dump truck in the back. That’s how I grew up. I grew up around the uranium mines, and also, I’m a former uranium miner.
“Nobody ever said anything about protection.” He showed the audience a picture of his father, also a miner, coming out of a uranium mine dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.
“That’s the kind of clothes they wore. These former miners sitting right here, that’s how they worked. The mothers were over at the mining sites cooking for their husbands. Their children lived there and they slept there. The miners, they don’t wear pajamas. Their working clothes were their pajamas. They touched their women like that - I hate to say it, but it’s true.
“You go to the doctor and they say, ‘Sure, you have a lung disease, but you’re still breathing.’ It’s like throwing a fish out of the water onto the land. Sure, it’ll breathe for an hour,” he said.
Saltwater is now applying for his Part E compensation from the Department of Labor and already has been sent a deficiency letter despite being compensated under RECA. Part E is worth anywhere from $2,500 for persons who have 1 percent disability to $250,000 for persons 100 percent disabled.
“If you’re 100 percent, how are you going to cash your check? You’re 6 feet under!” Saltwater said.
One proposal is to expand the �downwind� counties covered under RECA to include McKinley and San Juan counties in New Mexico and Montezuma County, Colo. “It’s like there was a curtain here when Nevada Test Site was detonating its bombs,” Harrison said.
“We need to do whatever we can to advertise this legislation. The Post-71 workers are sick. Family members are concerned. They want to see this legislation done.
“The resolution that went to the Attorney General’s Office and Tom Udall’s office in Washington asks for epidemiology studies,” Harrison said, as well as just compensation for persons injured by radiation exposure. “It’s going to take lobbying, it’s going to take money, it’s going to take expertise - people who know how to do these studies.”
The Navajo Nation is not designed to conduct the health studies, he said.
“This is a special population that we’re talking about. You’re the ones that lived out there, you’re the ones that drank the water. You used the materials from the mine - the dynamite boxes to build shelves for dishes, the ventilation bags, lumber, steel, he said. “So you were exposed through all of these.”
Gilbert Bedonie told residents that the Navajo Nation Uranium Committee’s work also continues. “I think we have drawn some support from various colleges and universities to begin taking an appropriate look at the impact that we have encountered.”
Bedonie has been working for years to obtain health studies and compensation for secondary victims - the mothers who lived in the mining communities and the children who played in the mines and were exposed to radiation through - take-home uranium.- To date, they haven’t found any funding, he said.
“There’s no law that I know of, there’s no epidemiology health study that will substantiate what we say, but there are family members who have developed stomach cancer, thyroid cancer. There are kids who were raised in and around the mining activities who drank the water that was used in baby formulas.
“We have various health problems as mothers and as children. We have hypertension, we have diabetes. There are all these other health issues that come into play, and we need to start narrowing it down. The Indian Health Service in Shiprock, a federal entity, will not really come out and say, ‘Yes, it’s because of this uranium you have this health problem’.”
“Because they’re a federal entity, they’re very reluctant. They don’t really talk about these things. We’ve always questioned the HIS’s credibility. Most of these doctors that come out are fresh out of medical school. We don’t have specialized doctors who specialize in various types of cancer. We have to go out of the reservation to get those services,” he said.
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