Navajo Nation continues advocacy to amend federal program to compensate uranium workers

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee heard a report from a lobbying firm working on generating Congressional support for amending the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

RECA was enacted in October 1990 to provide monetary compensation to individuals diagnosed with cancer or other specified diseases due to radiation exposure from atomic weapons testing or by uranium mining, milling or transporting. It has a sunset provision for July 2022.

Delegates received an update about lobbying efforts last week, according to a press release from the Office of the Speaker.

The report was provided on Nov. 17 by Innovative Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based lobby firm hired by the tribe.

Last year, U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., were among those who reintroduced the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2019. A companion bill was introduced by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Navajo Nation Council Delegates Wilson Stewart Jr., left, and Jimmy Yellowhair listen to comments during a public hearing on uranium mining on March 5 at Diné College's south campus in Shiprock.

According to the speaker's office press release, the tribe is seeking amendments to increase eligibility to individuals affected by nuclear testing in states like Arizona and New Mexico, a group commonly known as downwinders.

Other amendments supported by the tribe propose increasing compensation from $50,000 to $150,000 as well as deeming uranium core drillers eligible for claims and including those who worked at uranium mines or mills from 1972 to 1990.

Melanie Bowen, a staff member at Innovative Policy, said bipartisan support exists for the tribe's priorities with RECA based on discussions with congressional offices.

"They have an active interest in learning more about RECA and about the priorities," Bowen said.

Innovative Policy Founder Matt Sandgren described the company's outreach in Congress as "broad," including reaching out to both senators and several representatives from Arizona.

Sandgren added that U.S. Reps. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Penn., chairman and vice chairwoman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, have indicated they would like to schedule a hearing about the RECA amendments next year.

Audience members listen to comments from panelists about health conditions and environmental concerns from uranium mining during a forum on Oct. 2, 2019 at the Department of Diné Education in Window Rock, Arizona.

Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty requested that a meeting be scheduled with the transition team under President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to discuss the tribe's viewpoint on the amendments.

"I know Vice President-elect Harris was on the Senate Judiciary Committee and she is aware of some of the challenges we are facing here regarding uranium exposure, as we've presented to them with now-President Jonathan Nez," Crotty said.

Sandgen said they will follow-up with the transition team members.

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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