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Uranium miner: 'We were faced with dangers every day and not knowing the consequences'

Grijalva is the co-sponsor of a bill that would amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva addresses the audience before the start of the Oct. 2 forum about uranium mining's legacy on the Navajo Nation at the Department of Diné Education in Window Rock, Arizona.
  • Grijalva attended a forum in Window Rock to learn about the impacts uranium mining had on the Navajo people.
  • The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will have a field oversight hearing at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 7 in Albuquerque.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Tommy Reed spoke emotionally about how his health is troubled due to working at a uranium mine on the Navajo Nation.

In Reed's statement before U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., at a forum on Oct. 2, the Shiprock resident said he worked in an underground uranium mining operation at the Kerr-McGee Quivira Mines in Church Rock in the 1970s and 1980s.

"As a miner, I experienced all phases of uranium mining. I was exposed to high levels of radiation due to my 16-hour work shifts. … Currently, I'm experiencing multiple medical problems associated with my past work in the mines," he said.

While Reed named the lung and respiratory diseases he now lives with, the former miners who participated in the panel discussion nodded in agreement.

Former uranium miner Leslie Begay, center, listens to comments from a fellow mine worker during the Oct. 2 forum about uranium mining's legacy on the Navajo Nation at the Department of Diné Education in Window Rock, Arizona.

"We were faced with dangers every day and not knowing the consequences," Reed said, then issued his support for the U.S. Congress to amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

H.R. 3783 was introduced in July by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM. Grijalva, is among the co-sponsors. It proposes several amendments to RECA, including extending its trust fund until 2045. A similar version was introduced in March in the U.S. Senate.

Grijalva, the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, traveled to Window Rock, Arizona, to learn more about the legacy of uranium mining on the tribe's land.

The forum was arranged after Grijalva met with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty and former uranium miners in July in Washington, D.C.

From left, former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah, former underground uranium miner Phillip Harrison Sr., Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer and U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva talk after the Oct. 2 forum about the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation at the Department of Diné Education in Window Rock, Arizona.

"At the end of the meeting, I said I need to go and listen directly to the representatives, the experts, the miners (and) their families because these are the types of stories that need to be heard," Grijalva said.

The panelists at the event spoke about various topics, ranging from serious illnesses among former miners and community members to the need for more clean-up activities at mining areas.

An audience listen to comments from panelists about health conditions and environmental concerns from uranium mining during a forum on Oct. 2 at the Department of Diné Education in Window Rock, Arizona.

Navajo Epidemiology Center Director Ramona Antone-Nez said cancer rates among the Navajo people have increased since uranium mining began in the 1940s and are comparable to rates found today in the non-Hispanic white population. Prior to uranium extraction, Navajo people had lower cancer rates than the white population, she said. She cited a study published in the 1950s.

She added that long-term studies are necessary to understand the association between communities and uranium exposure.

"I want to emphasize these studies are important as we work toward health equity," Antone-Nez said.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, center, listens to comments from former uranium mine workers during a forum on Oct. 2 at the Department of Diné Education in Window Rock, Arizona.

In his remarks, President Nez said there are 524 known open uranium mine sites and only 219 sites have funding for clean-up and remediation work.

The 305 sites that lack funds remain threatening, he said. He added that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claims it is working to hold private companies accountable, but it has been three years since the last consent decree was issued.

"Meaning, that there are no more private responsible parties and that the federal government, which is a responsible party itself, needs to step up to the plate and allocate funding to address these remaining 305 sites," Nez said.

Edith Hood, member of the Red Water Pond Road Community Association, talks about the 1979 uranium mill spill in Church Rock. She made her comments at the Oct. 2 forum about the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation at the Department of Diné Education in Window Rock, Arizona.

Senate hearing on radiation in Indian Country

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will have a field oversight hearing entitled, "America's Nuclear Past: Examining the Effects of Radiation on Indian Country," on Oct. 7 in Albuquerque.

The committee will examine the history and legacy of the atomic age on tribal lands and discuss efforts to ensure that the federal government lives up to its obligations to compensate Native American communities, including clean-up of abandoned uranium mines and sites, according to a press release from the office of U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM.

Udall, the vice chairman for the committee, will discuss the bill to amend RECA to include the Tularosa Downwinders and the Post-1971 Uranium Workers, the release states.

The hearing will start at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 7 at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute's Science and Tech Auditorium, 9169 Coors Blvd., in Albuquerque.

A live stream will be available at www.indian.senate.gov.

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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Lewis Yazzie, left, talks about effect of uranium mining to residents in Monument Valley, Utah during the Oct. 2 forum about uranium mining's legacy on the Navajo Nation at the Department of Diné Education in Window Rock, Arizona.