Saturday, May 30, 2009

Navajo leaders seek help with uranium issues

SHIPROCK — Members of the Navajo Nation plan to take to Washington, D.C., their grassroots campaign to compensate uranium mine workers' children affected by diseases and birth defects.

The Navajo Nation Dependents of Uranium Workers Committee met Friday at the Shiprock Chapter House to update community members on the upcoming trip and hear feedback from residents who suffer from cancer, kidney disease, birth defects and other illnesses resulting from prolonged radon exposure from uranium mines.

Organizers plan to take their fight to the nation's capital July 7 to 9 and again July 28 to 31.

"The government is pretty aware of the damage to the family members," said Phil Harrison, Council Delegate for Red Valley/Cove Chapter of the Navajo Nation.

The intent of the trips is to further educate congressional leaders in the issues at hand, request a congressional field hearing in Window Rock or Shiprock, and discuss amending current legislation to extend compensation to family members.

"We are concerned with the children, the wives and the grandchildren," Blue Gap/ Tachee Chapter President Aaron Yazzie said.

Yazzie attended the meeting on behalf of his chapter's residents who still are suffering lingering health effects from previous mining in the area, he said.

"We, the children, are feeling the effects now," Yazzie said.

Residents of the Blue Gap and Tachee chapters still suffer from cancer, kidney disease and other health related problems from exposure, Yazzie said.

The current health problems date back to work done in the 1950s and 60s, Harrison said. During that time, uranium mine workers were exposed to high levels of radon, which has caused inter-generational bouts of illnesses in communities across the Navajo Nation.

By holding public meetings, organizers hope to garner enough support to lobby government officials in Washington, D.C., to amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA).

RECA, which was passed by Congress in 1990, authorized funding for people who contracted cancer or other specific diseases from radon exposure while working in the region's uranium mines. It was amended in 2000, and some would like to see it amended further.

With virtually no records from 50-60 years ago, many people are not able to receive workman's compensation, medical care, or compensation for deaths, illnesses, or the on-going birth-defects, Harrison said.

Waterflow resident Tony Kellywood hauled uranium in the 1950s. Now 71-years-old, Kellywood says breathing the fumes 50 years ago caused his current respiratory problems. But Kellywood hasn't received compensation because of a lack of proper documentation.

"Who is going to keep a check stub when you're 14 or 15 years old?" he said.

Kellywood's situation is not unique.

"There is a lot of discrepancy in the uranium workers' claims," Harrison said. "Many workers were not paid with check stubs, they were paid with cash."

Organizers estimate that only 8 percent of Navajo claims from 2004-2005 were paid.

"Money is not going to bring back a person," Yazzie said. "But it's at least something."

Many Navajo are not compensated under RECA because they don't have the proper medical records, marital records, birth certificates, proof of residency or work history required under the act, Harrison said.

As many as 15,000 dependents of uranium mine workers still are affected today from various diseases and birth defects.

Yazzie and other Navajo leaders are calling on leaders in Washington to help end what they call the continued suffering of the Navajo people.

"They thought they had the solution by burying it and covering it up," Yazzie said of the uranium mines. "But then the rains came."

The contaminated water has seeped into the drinking supply for both the people and livestock in chapters across the Navajo Nation.

"Now, to this day, we are concerned about the quality of water on top of the plateaus," Yazzie said.

Organizers want to amend the current legislation to cover Navajo affected but uncompensated. This, they hope, will bring about a change in the way the mines are closed and the health effects some residents still endure.

"It's poison," Harrison said of uranium. "The government should understand that."

It's a problem that affects residents in many communities in the southwest.

"Radiation doesn't recognize boundaries; it doesn't recognize gender," Harrison said.

(emphases mine...SB)

Brendan Giusti:

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