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FARMINGTON — Federal and tribal officials expressed support Wednesday for proposed amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act during a hearing in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bipartisan legislation was introduced in January 2017 to expand compensation under the act to victims of radiation exposure, including those who worked in uranium mines after 1971 in northwest New Mexico and those exposed to radiation from testing sites in the West and the Pacific islands.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., is among five senators sponsoring the bill and provided testimony in front of the committee in Washington, D.C.

"This bill would close the gaps in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to make sure that those downwinders and miners and millers who were unknowingly exposed to radiation — but who are not now eligible under the act — are fairly compensated," he said.

Although Congress amended the act in 2000, it still left out several groups, including downwinders living in the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico and the post-1971 miners, Udall added.

"While the federal government stopped purchasing domestic uranium in 1971, the mines continued to operate and the federal government failed to implement worker safety standards," Udall said adding work sites lacked showers and caused workers to take contaminated clothing home.

Approximately 30 million tons of uranium ore was removed from 1944 to 1986 from the Navajo reservation, and more than 500 abandoned uranium mines exist in the region, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez provided comments to the committee on behalf of the tribe. His comments included calls to support amending the types of documentation used to prove residency and employment.

"The verification process for downwinders is cumbersome and restrictive. The DOJ should allow the use of affidavits from local officials to verify residence," Nez said.

He added that information from uranium companies should be streamlined to ease the verification process.

"As the Navajo Nation vice president, I urge you to act now. Our people have been waiting for justice for far too long," Nez said.

He noted that among those attending the hearing was a tribal member who developed health problems from uranium mining.

This individual could not fly due to his health, so he drove across country to attend the hearing, Nez said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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