By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK â€” When the Navajo Nation approved a ban in 2005 on uranium mining and processing within Navajo Indian County, it was done with the realization that the Nation would be losing out on millions of dollars in fees and royalties.
But as Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. and numerous council delegates have said, â€œThe lives of the people are more important than the money to be obtained, and there is no answer to the illnesses that have resulted from uranium mining,â€ according to presidential spokesman George Hardeen.
â€œWe still have people today who are sick and are dying as a result of past uranium mining. The president has said countless times, â€˜Show us the cure to this before we reconsider allowing uranium mining to come back on Navajoland.â€™
â€œAt the time there was uranium mining, it was known to be dangerous. However, it was known to everyone except the Navajos who were mining. That has been well-documented. And thatâ€™s perpetrating a fraud on the Navajo people to get access to a potentially hazardous ore. This is the reason that the Navajo Nation passed its law,â€ Hardeen said.
But the Navajo people were not the only ones kept in the dark. While they were laboring in underground mines in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado â€” drinking the cool water that trickled down the walls and breathing the dust that permeated the mine shafts as they blasted their way deeper into the earth â€” people across the United States also were being exposed to radiation.
From 1945 through 1962, the United States conducted a series of above-ground atomic weapons tests which spewed radioactive fallout from test sites in Nevada and New Mexico.
To date, New Mexico downwinders are not covered under RECA, established in 1990 to compensate the survivors of radiation exposure.
According to GAO, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program, or RECP, has authorized payments totaling $1.2 billion for 18,110 claims since RECP began processing claims in April 1992. Almost half of the $1.2 billion was paid to claimants who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site.
The 18,110 claims represent about two-thirds of the 26,550 claims filed since 1992. The remaining one-third of the claims was denied, because RECAâ€™s eligibility criteria were not satisfied.
The RECA Amendments of 2000 broadened the scope of eligibility for benefits and added uranium mill workers and ore transporters to the categories of beneficiaries. Congress also added San Juan County, Utah, and Coconino, Yavapai, Navajo, Apache, and Gila, Ariz., to the list of â€œdownwinderâ€ counties, making those residents potentially eligible for compensation.
This past May, Utah Rep. Jim Matheson and Rep. Mike Simpson sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee requesting a hearing on the expansion of RECA, stating, â€œAs you know, over the course of more than two decades, the United States carried out more than 1,000 nuclear weapons tests.
â€œThe radioactive debris from these tests entered our nationâ€™s atmosphere and was later deposited, in the form of radioactive fallout, all across our nation … For decades, individuals living within the fallout areas have lived with adverse health effects caused by radiation exposure.
â€œEligibility for compensation, however, is limited to certain counties in just a few states. These geographic boundaries are, quite frankly, arbitrary boundaries that do not account for the fact that radioactive fallout does not abide by lines on a map. Some of the counties experiencing the largest concentration of fallout in the entire nation are not included in the current RECA program.â€
The congressmen said they do not believe RECA has received serious review by Congress in the last seven years and that the time for review is now appropriate.
Last month, bipartisan legislation was introduced in the Senate (S. 1917) to amend RECA to include downwinders in Idaho and Montana.
U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said Wednesday, â€œOver time itâ€™s become clear that Congress should begin the process of revising the Radiation Exposure act. I am eager to start working to reform and expand this program and am currently working with the Navajo Nation and other members of Congress from the Four Corners region to begin laying the foundation for such reform.
â€œThe first step is for Congress to fully evaluate RECA through our oversight mechanisms. In order to make the substantive and necessary reform we need, the Congress must fully evaluate the program and find out the successes and downfalls individuals have experienced with the act since its inception.
â€œIn the coming months, along with the Navajo Nation and other members of Congress, I will be one of the hosts of a roundtable on the issue at which time we will discuss uranium mine issues and the steps we can take to move forward on remedying a difficult situation,â€ Udall said.
In August, following introduction of the legislation, Jude McCartin of U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingamanâ€™s office, said, â€œSen. Bingaman is studying the legislation.â€ He has not yet said whether he will support it, or propose inclusion of New Mexico as a downwinder state.
Staffers for U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, a proponent of â€œclean nuclear energy,â€ have not responded to questions from the Independent regarding whether Domenici will support the legislation.
Media representatives for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a presidential candidate and former U.S. Energy Secretary, also have not responded as to whether the governor might push for New Mexico to be included under RECA.
Regarding Navajo and the revival of the nuclear age, Hardeen, said, â€œThe companies make an argument that their method of mining uranium now is safe. But there are still people who have been hurt by uranium mining. These are the elderly people and people who were uranium miners.
â€œAs a result, the Navajo Nation has said â€˜No more.â€™ It doesnâ€™t need to put itself into that situation again. These people are still hurt, and it affects entire families.
â€œPresident Shirley has said it has cost the Navajo Nation its own culture because these elders who are dying from various types of illnesses and cancers, they are the repositories of Navajo culture. They have the songs, the ceremonies, the teachings; and we are losing them and losing that. The cost is just tremendous, measured in that way,â€ Hardeen said.