More money, benefits for Navajo uranium workers

A new bill to compensate the nation’s nuclear workers may benefit uranium miners and millers on the Navajo Nation.

The Nuclear Workers Compensation Act passed both the House and the Senate last month, and the new president is expected to sign it sometime between January and March.

The bill provides for $150,000 dollars in compensation to thousands of workers who were exposed to radiation and beryllium in the nation’s nuclear weapons plants. But according to Phil Harrison of the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee, that compensation may also be applied to the Navajo workers who were exposed on the job.

The new bill is more good news in the struggle to help Navajo uranium workers and their families. Earlier this year, Congress passed several amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990, which, among other things, called for a $100,000 compensation level for millers and other workers, eliminated the distinction between smokers and non-smokers, included a wider variety of illness and disease, reduced the necessary radiation level to 40 Working Level Months, and included the Navajo downwinders.

Under the Nuclear Workers Compensation Bill (NWCB), says Harrison, Navajo claimants who receive RECA compensation will be able to get another $50,000.

And unlike RECA, the NWCB allows for medical benefits. Says Harrison, RECA’s $100,000 is often not enough to cover medical expenses, and families still end up in the hole.

Medical benefits will give workers more flexibility in their care.

“Many of the Navajo miners go to the Indian Health Services, but many go to their own doctors and pay our of pocket for the services,” says Harrison. “There is a big concern about hospital visits; they don’t trust government run hospitals; they feel the results of their chest x-rays or pulmonary function tests are not disclosed. Others are immediately told they will not qualify.” If people are given more freedom in their medical care, some of these problems will be alleviated.

In the meantime, Harrison suggests that affected workers who need a medical exam make an appointment with Kimberly Mose in Shiprock, the only uranium doctor there, by calling the NURVC office at (505) 368-1260.

Although the NWCB is good news, says Harrison, he isn’t done fighting for further RECA amendments. Although Clinton signed 10 amendments into law in July, there are still four more the NURVC is fighting for.

“We have held two meetings in the last two weeks, recommending that we fight for further additions to RECA; in particular, the inclusion of the post-1971 workers...the mines were still in terrible condition in the 70’s, and the testimonies on that are very dramatic. We are now getting ready to go back in July for the 107th Congress.”

But getting to Washington isn’t always easy. The office is running on empty and has had to fund many of its trips with raffles and food sales.

See Nuclear Workers, page 2

“There’s a lot of expenses that our offices have incurred—phone bills, travel expenses—we need support.”

In fact, Harrison would like to be in Washington even sooner. Even though it [the NWCB] looks good on paper, I want to be sure it’s right when it gets signed.”

Compensation to Navajo workers from the government has been long overdue, says Harrison. The Human Radiation Experiment Advisory Committee, which was created by President Clinton in 1994 to investigate unethical radiation experiments on humans, found that “uranium workers were more exposed to radiation than any other group involved with radiation.”

On Navajo, a large portion of those affected are on the Western Agency. Louise Yellowman, Coconino County Supervisor for District 5, says 76% of the uranium tailings are on the Western Agency. Shiprock and the Navajo Agency have 77% of the registered cases.

Harrison, recognizing how difficult it is for people in the Western Agency to get to Shiprock to file claims, said that Tuba City is due for a little extra help. The Office of Uranium Workers will pay for one case worker and one staff assistant to help people process their claims—they have only to find an office space, a process made a little trickier since there is no money for rent.

Yet Harrison encourages everyone who has not yet registered with the office to do so as soon as possible, including the post-71 workers, so when the legislation does go through they will be ready. An increase in the people who register will also help the office get an accurate number of how many people need compensation.

Harrison did say he would like to see the claims process simplified—proof of working in the mine and a brief medical history should be adequate.

“They have done enough,” he said. “They are entitled.”

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