Navajo Uranium Miners Seek Relief In Next Virus Package

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (May 7, 2020, 7:06 PM EDT) -- Bruce Chavez thinks that he is likely to die if he contracts the novel coronavirus. Not only is he vulnerable because of his age, but the Navajo elder has pulmonary fibrosis — a lung disease he says he contracted working in uranium mines in the 1960s.

"If I get it I know I won't be able to survive it," Chavez, 79, told Law360 in Navajo, his daughter translating. "All I have to stick to is my faith. I have been praying a lot lately."

Retired uranium miner and Navajo elder Bruce Chavez, 79, is at greater risk of COVID-19 because of his pulmonary fibrosis.

Chavez is one of thousands of retired uranium workers in the southwestern United States, many of them Navajo, who — along with their families — have faced serious health challenges.

Their illnesses stem from presumed radiation exposure in and around uranium mines since the 1940s, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. government purchased uranium to develop and test nuclear weapons between 1945 and 1962. Mining took place in the region through 1990.

Now, in the face of coronavirus, former uranium workers and their advocates on the Navajo Nation reservation in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah are hoping for a breakthrough in their longtime effort to expand and preserve health care services and financial relief administered by the U.S. Department of Labor. The virus has hit the Nation hard, with 85 deaths and 2,654 positive cases reported as of Wednesday.

"As Congress continues to allocate crucial economic relief funding to communities in need, we write to urge you to include provisions for those who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 because of past and ongoing radiation exposure linked to nuclear weapons activities," dozens of groups, including the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee, wrote in a letter Monday to congressional leaders.

"We know that a key to reducing the spread of COVID-19 is ensuring that those at highest risk have access to the medical care they need," the groups added.

The letter urges Congress, which will likely pass another massive coronavirus relief bill in several weeks, to include in the next package revisions that were proposed last year in the House and Senate to amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Signed into law in 1990 and revised in 2000, RECA answered lawsuits accusing the U.S. of failing to warn workers and people downwind of nuclear test sites about the risks they faced.

Kevin Begay, who lives on the Navajo reservation, said his 79-year-old father, Kellywood Martin Begay Sr., harbors guilt from his years as a mine supervisor. "Sometimes he feels that he may have put [friends and family] in danger by hiring them without knowing the dangers," he told Law360. "They didn't give him that type of information of the hazards or anything."

Through RECA, former uranium workers like Begay qualify for payments of $100,000, as well as health care for illnesses linked to radiation, such as lung cancer and fibrosis and renal cancer.

About 8,800 uranium miners, millers and ore transporters have received RECA compensation to date, according to the DOJ. The figure includes deceased recipients. If a worker is deceased, the family can be eligible for compensation.

But the program excludes uranium workers on the job after 1971 — a distinction that advocates say is arbitrary and should be eliminated. RECA's compensation fund is also scheduled to sunset in 2022, closing the program to new applicants.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., would extend eligibility to miners and millers who worked through 1990, increase possible compensation, and push back the fund's sunset to 2045.

"We're trying to add post-'71 workers," Phil Harrison, a former miner and long-term advocate with the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee, told Law360. "They're sick and they're exposed to radiation, too."

"Time is of the essence," Harrison added. He estimates that half of roughly 5,000 Navajo uranium workers have passed over the years. Many are in their 80s and 90s. There are likely hundreds of Navajo workers in the post-'71 category, according to Harrison.

Linda Evers, co-chair of the Post '71 Uranium Workers Committee and a post-'71 uranium miller herself, lives near the reservation in Milan, New Mexico. Based off of regional obituaries, "Between 20 and 50 workers a year are passing away without compensation," Evers told Law360.

Although not Navajo herself, her committee has surveyed Navajo uranium workers over the years.

"The government allowed us to be damaged," she said. "The very least they could do is include us with lung disease coverage in the middle of a lung pandemic." 

Amber Crotty, a Navajo Nation council delegate and signatory of the RECA expansion letter, says uranium workers face compounding challenges on the reservation, like limited access to fresh water in regions including Red Valley, Arizona, where the high school's mascot is a miner. One-third of Navajo reservation homes lack running water, according to the Indian Health Service Navajo Area field office.

"There's still many miners and families that have been denied [RECA] or their applications have been rejected … but they have the health conditions you would see in any miner," Crotty told Law360.

The Luján bill would also extend RECA compensation to New Mexico residents who lived downwind of the world's first atomic bomb test — the Trinity test in 1945. 

"The [Navajo] uranium miners are not just victims of uranium mining and the waste byproducts of uranium mines — they are also downwinders," Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor and co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium in New Mexico, told Law360.

"The RECA amendments, they've always told us, are too expensive to pass. That's been the big excuse [Congress has] given for years now," Cordova said. "But they are currently passing bills in the trillions and hundreds of billions. They can no longer say they don't have the money for RECA."

RECA has paid out $2.4 billion since its inception 30 years ago, according to the DOJ. The agency did not immediately comment on efforts to expand the program. 

Luján recently delivered the advocates' letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the House Judiciary Committee, according to his office.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., added in a statement that "justice is long overdue for the victims of radiation exposure," noting that he has sponsored Senate legislation to update RECA since 2010.

"Many of the Cold War victims already battling chronic illness, such as lung diseases and cancer, are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 complications, all the more reason Congress should target resources to this vulnerable population," Udall said.

A RECA recipient, Chavez has a nurse and respiratory therapist who make weekly home visits. He has an oxygen tank, and family can make trips into town to pick up his medication.

But COVID-19 has still taken a psychological toll. Chavez is suspicious of the government, after what happened in the mines.

"It's kind of similar to when uranium miners were exposed to uranium, and now here we are being exposed to COVID-19," he said. "I feel like the government knew it was coming … from working in uranium mines, and then now this, pandemic, it feels like the government is hurting us all over again."

--Additional reporting by Andrew Kragie. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo. 

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