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
  • ARKANSAS RIVER COMMUNITY PRESERVE LAND MANAGEMENT PLANNER
    Central Colorado Conservancy seeks a land management planner to facilitate the creation of a management plan for the Arkansas River Community (ARC) Preserve on a...
  • WATER ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Do you want to help shape the future of groundwater in the Grand Canyon region? The Grand Canyon Trust is hiring its first water advocacy...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH) seeks a strategic and visionary Executive Director: View all job details here- https://bit.ly/CCRHED
  • MONTANA BLUES
    The new novel by Ray Ring, retired HCN senior editor, tackles racism in the wild, a story told by a rural White horsewoman and a...
  • DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT SPECIALIST
    Title: Digital Engagement Specialist Location: Salt Lake City Reports to: Communications Director Status, Salary & Benefits: Full-time, Non-Exempt. Salary & Benefits information below. Submission Deadline:...
  • CONSERVATION FIELD ORGANIZER
    Title: Conservation Field Organizer Reports to: Advocacy and Stewardship Director Location: Southwest Colorado Compensation: $45,000 - $50,000 DOE FLSA: Non-Exempt, salaried, termed 24-month Wyss Fellow...
  • UTAH STATE DIRECTOR
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Apply by Oct 18. Seeking collaborative, hands-on ED to advance our work building community through fresh produce.
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News is hiring an Indigenous Affairs Editor to help guide the magazine's journalism and produce stories that are important to Indigenous communities and...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Staff Attorney The role of the Staff Attorney is to bring litigation on behalf of Western Watersheds Project, and at times our allies, in the...
  • ASSISTANT VICE PRESIDENT FOR DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
    Northern Michigan University seeks an outstanding leader to serve as its next Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. With new NMU President Dr. Brock...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Clark Fork Coalition seeks an exceptional leader to serve as its Executive Director. This position provides strategic vision and operational management while leading a...
  • GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT MANAGER
    Help uphold a groundbreaking legal agreement between a powerful mining corporation and the local communities impacted by the platinum and palladium mine in their backyard....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Feather River Land Trust (FRLT) is seeking a strategic and dynamic leader to advance our mission to "conserve the lands and waters of the...
  • COLORADO DIRECTOR
    COLORADO DIRECTOR Western Watersheds Project seeks a Colorado Director to continue and expand WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Colorado,...
  • ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF HISTORY - INDIGENOUS HISTORIES OF THE NORTH AMERICAN WEST
    Whitman College seeks applicants for a tenure-track position in Indigenous Histories of the North American West, beginning August 2024, at the rank of Assistant Professor....
  • DAVE AND ME
    Dave and Me, by international racontuer and children's books author Rusty Austin, is a funny, profane and intense collection of short stories, essays, and poems...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Rural Community Assistance Corporation is looking to hire a CFO. For more more information visit: https://www.rcac.org/careers/
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation (ABWF) seeks a new Executive Director. Founded in 2008, the ABWF is a respected nonprofit whose mission is to support...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the northern Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.