TUBA CITY, Ariz.— The To’Nanees Dizi’ Chapter House filled early with community members—the hall is packed before the speakers had a chance to arrive. Most of the participants are elderly.
People fill Styrofoam cups with coffee, then move to the front of the room to gather a brochure on the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which to date only benefits underground uranium miners, and a copy of the agenda for the morning.
One older gentleman reads the handout, then folds it carelessly and stuffs it into his shirt pocket. He shakes his head, and leans towards this reporter. “This only applies to mine workers. I was a mill worker.” Despite his obvious disappointment, he manages a smile.
Many in the room have had their lives tragically altered due to uranium mining. Lives have been lost to cancer in the past—and the death toll continues to grow. The Navajo reservation is dotted with such mines, from the small “dog hole” operations which allowed for a handful of miners, to much larger operations where men spent entire days deep beneath the ground. For the Navajo, this in itself is an unnatural act. But the reality is that families must be fed.
Each face in the meeting brings his or her own story. Here is a widow and her daughter, there a woman grieving for her father. The cancers are not limited to men. Women worked in the laboratories at Rare Metals. Miners and mill workers carried the deadly dust home with them.
Long after the government realized the danger of uranium mining, Navajos were allowed to continue their work without protective clothing or masks, nor were they afforded showers after a long, hot shift. Many had to eat their lunches in the mines, and slaked their thirst from the water that ran down the walls. Many families used tailing materials to construct their homes, and children still play on these deadly slopes.
To date, it has been difficult for many Navajo to obtain the compensation they deserve. Conditions specific to the reservation impact this problem. Many do not speak or write English, nor do they have access to information concerning their rights. The Office of Navajo Uranium Workers was opened to address some of these problems. This office was responsible for opening a window to allow consideration for surface and strip mine workers, said Louise Yellowman, Coconino County Supervisor.
Until recently, residents of the Western Agency faced long distances to travel to the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers (ONUW), formed to help Navajos receive compensation.
Leroy Esplain of ONUW attended the February 16 update meeting to announce the opening of an office in Tuba City. He explained that he was in the process of ordering the necessary equipment, including telephone, office furniture, fax, computers, and filing cabinets.
The office will be in Judy Secody’s old office in the Rehab building, and local residents were told that new positions will be advertised in the near future. “I am going to hire temporary employees first. When more funds become available, permanent employees will be hired.” He also cleared up confusion about the location of the new office, explaining that Kayenta had been considered when initial efforts to locate in Tuba City proved fruitless. “You have to have a second option.” When the Kayenta Township tabled his request, Esplain went back to Secody, the Navajo Nation Division of Health Supervisor.
She advised him to look at her old office space. It filled the bill, but in the meantime, Kayenta passed the resolution to allow an office there. “I told them it was too late. The office will be in Tuba City.”
Next fiscal year, Esplain promised that he would request additional funds from the council. “We need the office here. It is a lot of trouble for people to have to travel to New Mexico to file their claims. Gasoline prices are high; people have to spend money for food. This has been a hardship.”
Before the program can continue, another mill worker stands to speak. T.J. Barlow has brought a letter that he waves over his head before reading it aloud to the crowd. It reads, “Despite our diligent efforts and extensive investigation, we do not believe that you have a viable claim, therefore we write you to advise you that we will take no further action on your behalf and your claim.” The letter is signed by a private attorney.
Barlow is angry and frustrated. He too has suffered from radiation exposure. He worked at Rare Metals for seven years, and other surface jobs that included yellow cake— almost pure uranium. “It says in this pamphlet that compensation is for mine workers, not surface workers!”
Esplain said that yes, that was true. He launched into a brief description of Phil Harrison and Red Valley residents’ efforts to improve the Uranium Compensation bill. As a result, compensation has been extended to survivors, made it easier for miners to apply, changed the working month exposure required to qualify from 200 to 40 and increased the compensation from $100,000 by an additional $15,000.
Esplain said that his office has fielded complaints similar to Barlow’s. “Our office has taken the heat for a lot of these situations,” he said. He has heard many complaints about private attorneys who take compensation cases. “If you hire a private attorney, our office cannot interfere. If you want our office to handle your case, it is up to you to get your case back from a private attorney.”
Miners and their survivors who had their claims denied before the changes in the RECA law were encouraged to reapply.
Another Rare Metals miller is optimistic, and offers advice to the other people in attendance. “You really have to push people around, don’t let them push you around. They’ll get to everyone eventually.”
The new office in Tuba City will make that easier for residents of the Western Agency.
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