Navajos pay for industry's mistakes

  • Northern Arizona University Cline Library, Special Collections and Archives, Tad Nichols Collection and Fronske Studio
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, "Navajo Windfall."

Dr. Bruce Baird Struminger spends his workdays screening Navajo uranium workers who believe their jobs have made them sick. After four years, he can predict how most will react to getting a clean bill of health: "When we find out someone’s lungs are in great shape, some are happy," he says. "But most are not (because) they’re not going to get any compensation."

Struminger is the medical director of the federal Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program on the Navajo Reservation. He’s talking about the federal program that provides compensation to people with radiation-caused lung cancer or pulmonary fibrosis.

In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) and established screening programs in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. RECA compensates those who can prove they are sick because of their work in the uranium mines and mills between 1947 and 1971, when the U.S. government was the sole purchaser of uranium for nuclear bombs and reactors. It also compensates sick "downwinders" who lived in certain parts of Utah, Arizona or Nevada during nuclear bomb tests in the Nevada desert in the 1950s and ’60s.

So far, the U.S. Department of Justice has paid 16,022 RECA claims, each worth $150,000 plus related medical expenses. Just over 1,000 of them have gone to Navajo uranium workers or their widows; about 4,000 Navajos worked in the uranium industry prior to 1971. Another law provides an additional $250,000 in workmen’s compensation to sick workers.

Together, these two compensation programs have created something of a rush on the reservation. "It’s an awkward and awful situation," says Struminger, who this summer announced his resignation from his Shiprock-based post. The doctor has screened more than 1,750 patients — most of them two or three times each. His patients are almost always men, many of them now elderly. "The whole system is set up so that people are hoping to find something (in their lungs) that’s not good."

Though he finds the RECA program flawed, Struminger does believe it is an honest attempt to rectify past mistakes. But for people like George Brown or William Lopez, the program has come up short. Both men worked in the Tuba City uranium mill and today suffer from health problems. Their illnesses, however, don’t qualify for compensation. Still, they — along with many others who worked in or lived near the mines and mills — wonder if those health problems are related to the uranium industry.

"It’s a huge burden, that people worry about their health," Struminger says. Miners and millers, and their families, become convinced that they suffer from lingering illnesses that Struminger can’t discover. "There is this perception that it did affect them," he says. "We help them understand which of their ailments are related to uranium."

Brown, for his part, is frustrated. "We’re just like a time bomb, I guess," he says. Like many other former workers, he has given up on the RECA screening — "too much red tape." He believes uranium workers should be compensated based on how many years they worked, period: "I wish that they would say, ‘You worked so many years, you were exposed, and we don’t know what the future holds for you.’ "

High Country News Classifieds
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.