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Former uranium workers call for compensation expansion
NM's Tom Udall one of six senators sponsoring bill
SHIPROCK — Brimhall resident Leslie Begay Jr. worked as an underground miner for eight years in a uranium mining operation in Church Rock near Gallup.
The work done by Begay in the late 1970s to early 1980s is now impacting his health, including a diagnosis of interstitial lung disease, which requires him to use an oxygen tank.
On Tuesday, during a public meeting here, Begay voiced support for federal legislation to expand compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include those who worked in uranium mines after 1971 and those exposed to radiation from testing sites in the West and the Pacific Islands.
"As far as I'm concerned, we deserve it because we were never told how we can get so sick from this," he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that approximately 30 million tons of uranium ore was removed from the Navajo reservation from 1944 to 1986.
Former uranium workers and their relatives provided comments about the proposal in addition to remarks about problems in seeking compensation and health benefits during the public meeting at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., is among six senators sponsoring the bill, which was introduced in January 2017 by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
A similar measure was introduced in April 2017 by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who has called on the House Judiciary Committee to conduct a hearing on the proposal.
Tribal and federal officials spoke in favor of the RECA amendments in a June 27 hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Cal Curley, a field representative for Udall's office, said this was the first time the proposal had been heard in a Senate committee hearing, despite the senator repeatedly sponsoring the legislation over the years.
Cudeii resident Phillip A. Harrison, who was a miner for 15 years in Arizona and Colorado, said the medical community needs to be more open to conducting the screening process for former miners who are seeking compensation claims.
Window Rock, Arizona, resident Tom Wilson Yazzie Sr., said he was not a uranium miner, but he was exposed to the mineral while working for the tribe in the 1970s. Yazzie investigated land claims, sometimes visiting areas with high levels of uranium, and conducting surveys and testing.
"There was no safety. I did not know the toxic levels. No one told me," he said.
Jackson Brossy, executive director of the Navajo Nation's Washington office, said comments collected at the meeting will be used to help advocate for passage of the federal bill.
Brossy added the tribal President's Office is requesting that a congressional field hearing be scheduled on the Navajo Nation.
Phil Harrison Jr. is a consultant for the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee, a group advocating for compensation and health benefits for uranium miners.
"We'd like to see this amendment be done," Harrison said, adding the Senate committee hearing has set the stage for lawmakers to listen.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at email@example.com.