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Lawmakers push to expand radiation bill to help ‘victims of the Cold War’

Tina Cordova holds up a picture of her niece, who has been diagnosed with cancer. Cordova says her niece represents the fifth generation in their family to develop cancer because of the nuclear weapon testing in New Mexico. (Office of Sen. Ben Ray Lujan)
About 96% of uranium mining occurred on Navajo land

As the years have passed and people have died of cancer, Navajo Nation communities impacted by uranium mining have lost hope that they will someday receive compensation for the medical conditions resulting from exposure to radioactivity, Phil Harrison said during a news conference Wednesday.

“We are here in Washington to tell America how freedom was established,” said Harrison, a former miner and a member of the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee.

People like Harrison and the downwinders, who were exposed to radiation from uranium mining and atomic bomb tests, moved closer to receiving compensation after the U.S. Senate approved an expansion to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act earlier this year as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.

Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández, a Democrat from New Mexico, and James Moylan, a Republican nonvoting member who represents Guam, are pushing for House approval of that expansion.

Open pit uranium mine in Grants, New Mexico, around 1968. The shovel gives an idea of scale. (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy, public domain)

“If we could actually get out to all of the miners who mined after 1971 and make sure that they get the health screening – do you have any of these cancers that can be caused from this mining – we could save their lives,” she said.

U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, and Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, hosted a news conference Wednesday and were joined by Leger Fernández, Moylan and Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Missouri, and people from communities impacted by the radiation exposure.

Many of the people who attended, including Harrison, wore yellow shirts that read: “We are the unknowing, unwilling, uncompensated victims of the Cold War.”

Harrison said the miners were largely uneducated and couldn’t read and write.

His father, who worked in the mines, died at age 43 of lung cancer and now Harrison has kidney problems because of the exposure to radioactive material. Hundreds of Navajo people who worked in the mines have died because of that exposure.

“People die very quietly,” Harrison said.

In the past two months, he has facilitated three funerals from deaths that were related to cancer and lung disease.

Near a reclaimed pit mine in Oljato, Utah, on the Navajo Reservation, chunks of uranium lay scattered among the debris. Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“The Navajo uranium miners, all those other miners, the Laguna miners, they provided that recipe for the bomb,” Harrison said.

When his kidneys failed, Harrison initially thought he had been bitten by mosquitoes. A rash formed on his body and the doctors put him on dialysis. Looking back, he recalls drinking water in the uranium mine.

“Nobody told me, ‘Don’t drink that. Don’t wade in there,’” he said.

Navajo Nation Speaker Crystalyne Curley spoke about the debt that the country owes to the Navajo people for the decades of uranium mining and the impacts on their health and environment.

Between 1944 and 1986, companies extracted nearly 300 million tons of uranium from the Navajo Nation. This provided jobs for families, but Curley said her people were not informed about the dangers of uranium mining, evidenced by “generations of illnesses and death across Navajo Nation.”

Navajo community members herded livestock to drink contaminated waters, which children also played in. She said they also took lumber and supplies available from the mines to construct their houses.

Now they are paying the cost in medical conditions such as cancer and kidney disease.

After learning about the radioactive waste that was disposed of in Missouri and uranium processing that occurred in the St. Louis area that continues to impact people’s health, Hawley called Luján – who has been a longtime champion of expanding RECA – and the two of them worked together in a bipartisan effort to get 61 votes in the Senate.

A warning sign at the old Kerr-McGee uranium mill site is shown on open land in the foreground with Mount Taylor in the background near Grants, N.M. Susan Montoya Bryan/The Associated Press

“Listen, this is a basic principle, if a government is going to create a disaster, the government should clean it up,” Hawley said. “If the government is going to expose its own citizens to radioactive material, radioactive waste, radioactive contamination for decades, the government ought to pay the bills of the men and women who have gotten sick because of it, they ought to pay for the survivor benefits of those who have been lost.”

In Missouri, radioactive waste led to the closure of Jana Elementary School and a community member who attended the news conference held a sign that read “Justice for Jana Elementary.”

Since the closure, more than 300 truck loads of contaminated dirt have been removed from the banks of Coldwater Creek near the school, and the community has called for broader levels of testing.

Navajo miners work at the Kerr McGee uranium mine at Cove, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation in this photo from the 1950s. The Associated Press

This story is not unique, and Hawley said he was able to secure the votes of his Republican colleagues by telling them about ways the expansion could benefit their own constituents.

“Every member of Congress should vote for this,” Hawley said, stating that all 50 states have people who have been impacted by radiation exposure.

In his own state, Hawley pointed to the high levels of childhood brain tumors in St. Louis as a result of the uranium processing.

“Now, we’ve been told for decades that that was just a coincidence. But we know now that’s not true,” he said, adding that federal officials knew that the water and soil in St. Louis had nuclear contamination starting as early as the 1950s and 1960s.

Luján spoke about the conditions that uranium miners faced as the mines were often filled with water to keep particulate matter down and the workers would leave with radioactive material on their clothing, which they would bring home to their families.

“Not only were those uranium mine workers getting sick, but then it was spreading to families and countless others,” he said.

The vast majority of the defense-related uranium mining – 96% – occurred on Navajo Nation lands. Other uranium mining related to defense activities occurred on Pueblo of Laguna and Pueblo of Zuni lands in New Mexico.

Downwinders in the Tularosa Basin who have not been compensated for the health impacts atomic weapon testing had on their families. That includes people like Tina Cordova, who is the fourth generation in her family to develop cancer as a result of the testing and now has a niece who is fifth generation to develop cancer.

“There are generations behind us whose genes carry this legacy,” she said.

Cordova said there was no running water in her community at the time, so people collected rainwater for drinking, cooking and bathing.

“They didn’t have the decency to let us know that as that ash fell from the sky for days afterward that it would completely contaminate our water supply,” she said.

There were also no grocery stores, so many people grew their own food, which was also contaminated by the fallout.

Both Luján and Leger Fernández spoke about the recent film “Oppenheimer,” which documented the work to develop the atomic bomb.

“In New Mexico, the bomb was invented, the bomb was exploded, and the material for the bomb was mined,” Leger Fernández said.

She said the government eventually chose to move that testing to Guam and other Pacific islands. The original law did not include downwinders in New Mexico or Guam, nor did it include miners who worked in uranium mines after 1971.

“It was a marvelous thing they did in 1992, where they recognized that the downwinders, the miners, the workers deserve the kind of specialized health care that they need to address the harm that is done when you are exposed to these materials,” Leger Fernández said, referencing the initial passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. “What was wrong back then was to inadvertently leave out the communities that are represented here behind me from that compensation.”

This story was written by Hannah Grover and has been republished here from NM Political Report.