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Navajo Nation urges Congress to act on RECA expansion bill


Shondiin Silversmith
AZ Mirror

Kathleen Tsosie remembers seeing her dad come home every evening with his clothes covered in dirt. As a little girl, she never questioned why, and she was often more excited to see if he had any leftover food in his lunchbox.

“We used to go through his lunch and eat whatever he didn’t eat,” Tsosie said, recalling when she was around 4 years old. “And he always had cold water that came back from the mountain.”

Tsosie’s father, grandfather, and uncles all worked as uranium miners on the Navajo Nation near Cove, Arizona, from the 1940s to the 1960s. The dirt Tsosie’s father was caked in when he arrived home came from the mines, and the cold water he brought back was from the nearby springs. 

Tsosie grew up in Cove, a remote community located at the foothills of the Chuska mountain range in northeastern Arizona. There are 56 abandoned mines located in the Cove area, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the late 1960s, Tsosie said her grandfather started getting sick. She remembers herding sheep with him and how he would often rest under a tree, asking her to push on his chest because it hurt.

Tsosie said she was about 7 years old when her uncles took her grandfather to the hospital. At the time, she didn’t know why he was sick, but later on, she learned he had cancer. Her grandfather died in October 1967.

Over a decade later, Tsosie’s father also started getting sick. She remembers when he came to visit her in Wyoming; she was rubbing his shoulders when she felt a lump. She told him to get it checked out because he complained about how painful it was.

Her father was diagnosed with cancer in 1984 and went through treatments, but died in April 1985.

“When my dad passed away, everybody knew it was from the mine,” Tsosie said. He was just the latest on a long list of Navajo men from her community who worked in the uranium mines and ended up getting sick and passing away.

She recalls how her father used to tell her that, one day, it may happen to him, but she did not want to believe him. Her dad worked in the uranium mines for over 20 years.

The sickness did not stop there. In February of 2007, Tsosie was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she would spend years in treatment and eventually go into remission in December 2007.

But, this year, Tsosie got the news in February that her cancer has returned, and she is now taking the steps toward getting treatment.

Tsosie’s family history with uranium mining and growing up in an area downwind from nuclear testing sites is similar to many Navajo families in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. Her family is among the thousands potentially impacted by radiation from nuclear weapon testing, according to National Cancer Institute research.

Because of that history, Tsosie became an advocate for issues related to downwinders and uranium mine workers from the Navajo Nation, including the continuation of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, provides a program that compensates individuals who become ill because of exposure to radiation from the United States’ development and testing of nuclear weapons.

RECA was initially set to expire in 2022, but President Joe Biden signed a measure extending the program for two more years. Now, it’s set to expire in less than a month.

Tsosie first heard of the program in the 1990s after her mother applied for it because her father was a uranium mine worker. She remembers the day her mother got a compensation check for $100,000 and handed it to her.

“She gave it to me, and she said, ‘This is from your dad,’” Tsosie said, adding that her mother didn’t go into many details at the time, only saying that families with loved ones who died of cancer were getting checks.

Tsosie said she was upset about the check because her father had died, and $100,000 was nothing in comparison.

“I was really mad, and that’s just how the federal government thinks of us as Navajo people,” she explained.

The second time she worked with RECA was for her own case. After her cancer treatments concluded in December 2007, she took some time to heal before determining in March 2008 whether she qualified for RECA. She did qualify and received compensation.

Since RECA was passed in 1990, more than 55,000 claims have been filed. Of those, more than 41,000 claims, or about 75 percent, have been approved — and roughly $2.6 billion had been paid out as of the end of 2022.

Claims for “downwinders” yield $50,000. For uranium mines and mill workers providing ore to construct nuclear weapons, claimants typically receive $100,000.

Proving that exposure to nuclear waste and radiation causes cancers and other diseases is difficult. However, the federal program doesn’t require claimants to prove causation: They only have to show that they or a relative had a qualifying disease after working or living in certain locations during specific time frames.

In July 2023, the U.S. Senate voted to expand and extend the RECA program, and it was attached as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the Department of Defense.

It could have extended health care coverage and compensation to more uranium industry workers and “downwinders” exposed to radiation in several new regions — Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, and Guam — and expanded coverage to new parts of Arizona, Nevada and Utah.

The defense spending bill for 2024 was signed into law on Dec. 22 by Biden, but the RECA expansion was cut from the final bill before it landed on his desk.

When she heard that the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act amendments failed to pass, Tsosie said it really impacted her, and she cried because so many people deserve that funding.

“I know what it feels like. I know what it feels like to suffer,” she said.

Without an extension, RECA is set to expire in June, and the deadline for claims to be postmarked is June 10, 2024, according to the DOJ.

Navajo leaders advocate for RECA

The sunset of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act is approaching fast, and leaders from the Navajo Nation are urging Congress to act on the expansion bill that has been waiting for the U.S. House of Representatives to take it up for more than two months.

“Time is running out,” Justin Ahasteen, the executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, said in a press release.

“Every day without these amendments means another day without justice for our people,” he added. “We urge Congress to stand on the right side of history and pass these crucial amendments.”

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley from Missouri introduced S. 3853 – The Radiation Exposure Compensation Reauthorization Act, which funds RECA past its June sunset date for another six years.

The bill passed through the U.S. Senate with a bipartisan 69-30 vote on March 7. But since being sent to the House on March 11, the bill hasn’t moved.

The RECA expansion bill would include more communities downwind of nuclear test sites in the United States and Guam. It would extend eligibility for uranium workers to include those who worked after 1971. Communities harmed by radioactive waste from the tests could apply for the program, and expansion would also boost compensation payments to account for inflation.

“The Navajo Nation calls for immediate passage of S. 3853,” Ahasteen said in a press release. “This is to ensure that justice is no longer delayed for the Navajo people and other affected communities.”

Ahasteen told the Arizona Mirror in an interview that congressional leaders holding the bill back due to the program’s expense is not a good enough reason not to pass it.

“They keep referencing the cost and saying it’s too expensive,” he said. But, he explained, the RECA expansion is only a sliver of U.S. spending on foreign aid or nuclear development.

And it shouldn’t even be a matter of cost, Ahasteen said, because people have given their lives and their health in the interest of national security.

“The bill has been paid with the lives and the health of the American workers who were exposed unjustly to radiation because the federal government kept it from them and they lied about the dangers,” he said. 

From 1945 to 1992, the U.S. conducted a total of 1,030 nuclear tests, according to the Arms Control Association.

Many were conducted at the Nevada Test Site, with 928 nuclear tests conducted at the site between 1951 and 1992, according to the Nevada National Security Site. About 100 of those were atmospheric tests, and the rest were underground detonations.

According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, atmospheric tests involved unrestrained releases of radioactive materials directly into the environment, causing the largest collective dose of radiation thus far from man-made radiation sources.

Between the 1940s and 1990s, thousands of uranium mines operated in the United States, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Most operated in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona, typically on federal and tribal lands.

The number of mining locations associated with uranium is around 15,000, according to the EPA, and of those, more than 4,000 have documented uranium production.

Navajo Nation leaders advocated and worked with officials in Washington, D.C., for decades to get the amendments added to the RECA that would benefit more Navajo people who have been impacted by uranium mining, as well as radiation exposure.

Their efforts continue with the current expansion bill: Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren, Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley and the Navajo Nation Washington Office team have been working on an advocacy push this week with congressional leaders.

“Our people have borne the cost of America’s nuclear program in their health and well-being,” Nygren said in a written statement. “The amendments we advocate for today are not merely legislative changes; they are affirmations of justice and a commitment to heal the wounds of the past.”

On May 14, Nygren and Curley met with former Navajo uranium miners and members of Congress to urge passage of the amendments before RECA expires in a few weeks.

“As the Navajo Nation, we feel that that’s the best fit for us, especially for our miners,” Curley told the Mirror about her support of the expansion bill.

Curley said she’s spent her time in Washington educating congressional leaders about the Navajo Nation and the impact uranium mining has had on their people.

“A lot of our Navajo fathers, grandparents, and uncles went into these mines without any protection,” she said. “And now, many decades later, we’re dealing with the health effects.”

The legacy of uranium mining has impacted the Navajo Nation for decades, from abandoned mines to contaminated waste disposal.

From 1944 to 1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands, according to the EPA, and hundreds of Navajo people worked in the mines, often living and raising families in close proximity to the mines and mills.

Ahasteen said those numbers show exactly how large the uranium operations were on the Navajo Nation and the impact it would have on the Navajo people.

“There are photos on record to show Navajo people being exploited, not given any proper protective equipment, but (the federal government) knew about the dangers of radiation since the ’40s,” Ahasteen said. “They were given a shovel and a hard hat, and they were told: Go to work. You’ll earn lots of money. You’ll have a nice life, and we did that, but it didn’t work so well for us.”

Although the mines are no longer operational across the Navajo Nation, contamination continues, including 523 abandoned uranium mines in addition to homes and water sources with heightened levels of radiation.

The health risks associated with this contamination include the possibility of lung cancer from inhaling radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function resulting from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water.

“We want to remind all of the members of Congress that it was because of the Navajo Nation that we are where we are today,” Ahasteen said. “It is because of the uranium workers (that) the United States is the nuclear power that it is today.”

Ahasteen said the Navajo people have demonstrated their patriotism for the U.S. time and time again, but the country continues not to recognize that.

“That’s really what’s appalling,” he added.

As of December 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that 7,704 claims from tribal citizens representing 24 tribal nations had been filed with the RECA program, 5,310 had been granted and more than $362.5 million had been awarded.

Navajo people make up 86 percent of the claimants, according to the DOJ, and they have received awards totaling more than $297 million.

RECA’s downwind affected area covers land within multiple federally recognized tribal nations, including the Navajo, Hopi and White Mountain Apache.

Ahasteen provided RECA claim numbers for Arizona as of April 2023. A total of 15,603 RECA claims had been submitted in Arizona, 3,052 of which came from the Navajo Nation.

“That accounts for about 20% of all claims in Arizona,” he said.

In New Mexico, he said that there were a total of 7,300 claims, and 2,900 were Navajo.

“That means 40 percent of all of New Mexico claims are Navajo,” Ahasteen said. “Combined between Arizona and New Mexico, Navajo makes up about a fourth of all RECA claims.”

Ahasteen said it is disappointing that the program is approaching expiration and that the expansion bill still hasn’t moved in the House.

“We are hopeful that when it is brought to the House floor for a vote, Congress will speak, and they will move forward with the amendments because it’s the right thing to do,” he added.

This article was first published in AZ Mirror.



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