« Return to this article

Know the West

Navajos pay for industry's mistakes


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.’ "