Program aims to find victims of radiation exposure

By Felicia Fonseca (AP) April 2010

Some toiled in uranium mines, transported the extracted ore and carried it home on their clothes. Others participated in nuclear weapons testing or lived downwind from test sites.

Not all have been compensated, let alone know about a federal program that does so.

Larry Martinez knows of thousands of them who live on the Navajo Nation, and this summer he hopes to get some help finding more in the towns that dot the 27,000-square-mile reservation.

A new U.S. Department of Justice program will select 30 students to travel the vast reservation and other communities in the Four Corners region to identify potential participants in the federal compensation program.

“It’s going to be a godsend because I need the bodies,” said Martinez, of the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers.

Congress in 1990 authorized compensation for people who worked in or were affected by uranium mining or nuclear weapons testing between 1942 and 1971 and contracted cancer or other diseases from radon exposure.

From April 1992 through March 2010, the government has paid out nearly $1.5 billion in some 22,350 claims. Almost 9,000 other claims have been denied, primarily because the claimant did not have a covered illness, according to the DOJ.

Of the total applications, about 23,500 come from the Four Corners area and around 6,000 were denied.

The student interns, 15 each in two sessions, will undergo two weeks of training in Washington, D.C., to learn about the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, community outreach and cultural sensitivity before heading to the reservation.

Assistant Attorney General Tony West, who was in Arizona and New Mexico this week explaining the internship, said the DOJ needed a better way to reach out to tribal members while providing an opportunity for students to serve their country.

“I’m very hopeful this will become a very successful program in the years to come,” he said.

Angel Harlins, who is studying environmental policy and international relations at Northern Arizona University, plans to apply.

“I found it interesting that now it seems like it’s too late, but they’re trying to figure out what people need right now,” said the 21-year-old Harlins.

Less than a handful of people with Martinez’s office do outreach on the Navajo Nation, where it can take hours to reach a single home and years to gather the documents needed for a successful claim, he said.

He has a list of 6,000 people who have started the RECA process but estimates up to 2,000 more are eligible.

Many people hesitate to file because they’re ashamed of their illness or believe its a death sentence, and cannot prove work history, establish residency or obtain medical records, he said.

Navajos and other tribal members who worked in the uranium mining industry often relied on traditional healers for health care, which left no paper record of their illnesses. Birth certificates for the more elderly population don’t exist, but Navajos can obtain them through a court process. In the 11 years Martinez has worked to compensate people under RECA, he recalls only two people who kept pay stubs from their time in the uranium mining industry.

Applicants also need to prove they have one of 27 covered illnesses through medical screenings and that they were exposed to radiation for a certain period of time or were present during nuclear weapons testing.

The lengthy process has left some Navajos frustrated and has given the RECA program a bad reputation on the reservation, said Philian Tree, a 24-year-old NAU student whose father qualified for compensation as a downwinder. If successful, they can receive anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, depending on which of three categories they fit.

“It kind of puts a bitter taste in people’s mouths,” she said. “You mention it to people, but they say, ‘I know about it, but it takes too long.”’

Yet Tree praised the DOJ’s efforts and offered herself as a resource for student interns who might face difficulty traveling across the reservation, gaining the trust of Navajos or understanding the effects of radiation exposure.

Nicole Lucero, an intern with a Flagstaff health facility that screens people with a history of radiation exposure, said she went out on the reservation with no knowledge of RECA or the Navajo culture. She’s been shunned by some clients who want to speak only to other Navajos, but welcomed by others who openly share their experience.

“There are going to be barriers,” Lucero said. “But it’s a matter of if you show them you’re there to help, they open up a little more.”