American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Radiation Exposure Compensation Act

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), passed by Congress in 1990, provides payments to people who contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases as a result of their exposure to radiation released during aboveground nuclear weapons tests or as the result of their exposure to radiation during employment in underground uranium mines in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, or Wyoming between 1947 and 1971. Many of the Native Americans, mostly Navajos, applying for aid have had their requests denied because of difficulties with the strict rules for aid.

The dangers of radiation were not well understood by the public during the early years of the Cold War, although uranium was discovered to be radioactive in 1896. Uranium is a naturally occurring, silvery-white metallic element that is needed to create nuclear fission. Exposure to radiation from uranium can occur in various ways. The breakdown of uranium products creates radon progeny. These can attach to dust particles and, if workers inhale the dust, the particles lodge in their lungs, where they release intense doses of radiation.

People working with uranium need protective clothing to shield their bodies from radiation damage that causes cancer and kidney damage. Additionally, exposure to various agents in the mining community, such as silica and other dusts, can cause nonmalignant respiratory diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis, corpulmonale related to fibrosis, silicosis, and pneumoconiosis. Until the 1970s, miners typically wore only short-sleeved T-shirts, denim pants, and helmets. In that decade, mine managers started taking some precautions against radiation exposure.

RECA designated responsibility for establishing regulations for the submission and payment of claims to the Attorney General. In May 1992, the Department of Justice began accepting claims and making payments. Navajo workers formed about a fourth of the workforce in the uranium mines and mills of western Colorado and New Mexico, eastern Utah, and Arizona. However, they have not received a fourth of RECA benefits.

A substantial number of Navajos do not have a strong command of English, preventing them from understanding the RECA law and applying for benefits. Additionally, RECA regulations have been criticized for being unnecessarily stringent and unreasonably burdensome. Workers were required to provide proof that they were exposed to specified minimum levels of radiation, set at 200 Working Level Months. There is no scientific evidence that workers who were exposed to less than 200 months of radiation are safe from radiation-related ailments.

Uranium workers experience lung cancer at a rate that is twenty-eight times the normal rate. Despite this, the first version of RECA excluded lung cancer patients if they smoked more than one pack of cigarette products per year. Even Navajos who used tobacco for ceremonial purposes thus were banned from receiving compensation. The government also required documentation of marital status for wives of miners to get benefits but only accepted state-issued marriage certificates. Many Navajos do not have such documents, preventing widows of uranium miners from collecting benefits. Compounding the anger of the uranium workers and their relatives, the federal government did not sufficiently fund RECA. A "downwinder" (a person exposed to radiation during aboveground nuclear tests) was designated to receive $50,000, an on-site participant in testing was awarded $75,000, and a uranium miner received $100,000. However, the federal government issued IOUs and partial payments instead of full cash payments to those who qualified for aid.

To lobby the government for assistance, the Navajos have formed a number of organizations, including Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, the Eastern Navajo Agency Uranium Workers, the Northern Arizona Navajo Down-winders, the Utah Navajo Downwinders, and the Navajo Nation Dependents of Uranium Workers. Women and children who lived in uranium camps with their miner husbands and fathers were also exposed to radiation. Many of the wives have developed cancers and respiratory problems. The children also suffer from a high rate of birth defects. In response to Navajo complaints, the federal government amended RECA in 2000 to add new claimant categories, provide additional compensable illnesses, lower the radiation exposure threshold, and remove lifestyle restrictions.

Caryn E. Neumann


Further Reading
Eichstaedt, Peter H., and Murrae Haynes. 1994. If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans. Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books.; Gallagher, Carole. 1994. American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War. New York: Random House.; Udall, Stewart. 1998. The Myths of August: A Personal Exploration of Our Tragic Cold War Affair with the Atom. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.; United States Department of Energy. "Final Report of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Committee, July 1996." Available at: http://www.eh.doe.gov/ohre/roadmap/uranium. Accessed January 18, 2006.
 

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