Cancer Saga Continues For Uraniuim Cleanup Worker
By Kathy Helms
SHIPROCK – Phillip Lee, a former Navajo Engineering Construction Authority employee who helped clean up radioactive soil at the former Kerr-McGee uranium mill in Shiprock, has just begun his second week of chemotherapy for renal cell carcinoma, diagnosed in August 2009.
Though the disease has spread to his pancreas and his cancer is now in Stage 4, Lee, 51, counts himself lucky. As much as he was dreading chemotherapy, he hasn't had any of the 13 possible side effects associated with the new treatment. He and his doctor see that as a good sign.
“Sutent is a chemo drug but it's a newer type. There are two types that they are giving folks with advanced renal cell carcinoma and he's giving me the one that he thinks will suit me. It's the strongest dose available,” Lee said. He travels to the oncology clinic in Farmington for a 28-day supply.
“It's expensive. It's like $8,006 for 28 pills,” he said, but he and his doctor are hopeful it will stop the cancer from spreading and slowly dissolve the growth on his pancreas.
Lee is just one of an undetermined number of workers who helped clean up radioactive contamination at four uranium mills on the Navajo Nation. He worked from June 1985 to around September 1986, operating a scraper and hauling contaminated fill for disposal at the Shiprock Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action site.
The NECA job with its $500 a week paycheck was like striking it rich to a young Navajo man in his 20s with a family to support. It wasn't until 25 years later when his left kidney was removed due to cancer that Lee began to have questions. Despite his illness, he began what has become a fruitless quest for compensation from federal programs designed to benefit sick uranium workers.
Lee attended a Post-'71 Uranium Workers Committee meeting in June in Gallup, hoping that the 2010 amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act introduced in the U.S. Senate and House by Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico meant that he finally would qualify for federal aid because the amendments call for compensating uranium workers employed after 1971. The short answer: No. Remediation workers aren't covered under RECA.
Jennifer McCall of the Killian and Davis law firm of Grand Junction, Colo., which has been lobbying Congress for years on behalf of Navajo victims, made some inquiries to the U.S. Department of Labor on Lee's behalf. But as it turns out, he and others who worked on Navajo UMTRA sites also fail to qualify under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.
According to the Department of Labor, the Navajo Nation owns the Shiprock site. It was not owned or operated by the Atomic Energy Commission or the Manhattan Engineer District and therefore does not enjoy the same coverage as other mills and ore-buying stations.
The Mexican Hat uranium mill, formerly operated by Atlas Corp., reverted to the Navajo Nation after the lease expired in 1970. The Monument Valley mill closed in 1968 and control of the site revered to the Navajo Nation. The Nation also retains title to the 145-acre former Rare Metals disposal site in Tuba City.
“Because the land parcels where the uranium mills were initially constructed or remediated under the Uranium Mill Tailings Remediation Control Act were owned and operated by private companies rather than by the MED or AEC, they are not covered under EEOICPA,” according to Janet Kapsin of DOL's Office of Workers' Compensation Program.
The Manhattan Engineer District-owned ore-buying stations and facilities such as the Durango, Colo., green sludge uranium plant was MED-owned and its workers are covered. The Moab UMTRA site and its reclamation workers also are covered because after Atlas declared bankruptcy in 1998, the land was transferred to the Department of Energy for cleanup.
When first authored, EEOICPA was intended to dovetail into a program for those workers not compensated by RECA, and to provide monies for DOE contractors affected by the handling of beryllium, Kapsin said. But when the legislation came out of committee and was approved by the president, it changed.
“The law is very concise about property or building ownership and the contract relationship that must be in place with the government to qualify,” she said, and because the mill properties were owned by private companies, the UMTRA workers are not covered.
“RECA only covered the mill workers and ore transporters; no provision was written into that law to compensate remediation workers. Work involved with waste tailings on non-government owned property is not covered by EEOICPA, which is where Shiprock falls because the site is part of the Navajo Nation and the land is not owned by DOE,” she said.
In August 1953, Kerr-McGee Oil Industries Inc., signed a contract with the Atomic Energy Commission for a uranium processing mill to be built at Shiprock. In March 1963, Vanadium Corporation of America purchased the Shiprock mill from Kerr-McGee and continued its operation until August 1967 when VCA was merged into Foote Mineral Co. Foote operated the mill until it was closed in May 1968. Control of the former mill site reverted to the Navajo Nation in 1973 when Foote’s lease for the land expired.
NECA then used about 40 acres of the site, including mill offices and buildings, as a training facility to instruct students to operate and maintain earthmoving heavy equipment. In January 1975, NECA began decontamination activities under an Environmental Protection Agency plan to reduce the radiological exposure to employees and trainees.
Lee said he thought that between the proposed RECA amendments and EEOICPA, he finally would be eligible for compensation, “but now it's just like another step thrown my way. It seems like they would think way into the future about it and have some recourse for us to follow, those of us that do get sick. But now it's just like a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' kind of thing.”
Lee is disheartened that the RECA amendments are being held up in the Judiciary committees of Congress. “I was hoping they would pass it and in November I could get on. With all the cancer going on among the Native people, they just turn a blind eye to it. It's crazy. But the Lord has still got me here, so I guess I got more fighting to do.
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