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
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Western Slope Conservation Center Paonia, CO WSCC seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking and a creative problem-solver. Position Summary: The Executive Director leads...
  • ARIZONA STATE DIRECTOR
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGEMENT/HOSPITALITY SERVICES
    Seasoned ranch manager of award-winning conservation ranch seeking position as nature reserve/resort or ranch manager. Visit philipmoonwalker.com for resume and certifications. Contact: [email protected]
  • PART-TIME OREGON GRANT WRITER
    Help advance rights for people, communities, and nature - Part-time grant writer. The Oregon Community Rights Network (ORCRN) has been active over the last six...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Utah Public Lands Program Director Location: Southern Utah Position: Full Time (40 hours per week) Supervisor: Conservation Director About us: The Grand Canyon...
  • FSBO PROPERTY-SOUTHEAST ARIZONA
    Located in an area steeped in history, this gentleman's ranch sits at the entrance to the renowned Cave Creek Canyon. Enjoy picturesque views of the...
  • 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...
  • LAND CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    JOIN OUR TEAM! The New Mexico Land Conservancy in Santa Fe is seeking a Land Conservation Project Manager who will work to protect land and...
  • HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NP
    Comfortable home at foot of Boulder Mountain, on one fenced acre. Amazing views!
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • 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.
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.