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Aid for communities exposed to radiation expires June 10. Navajos are in D.C. to urge extension

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

This week, the Union of Concerned Scientists is sending residents from radiation-exposed communities, including the Navajo Nation, to Capitol Hill.

They’re calling on House Speaker Mike Johnson to bring a floor vote on an already-passed bipartisan Senate bill to renew aid for downwinders through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, which expires in June.

Between 1944 and 1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore was extracted on the Navajo Nation. Two years prior to that, uranium was discovered on the reservation in the northeast Arizona town of Cove, where Phil Harrison grew up.

“That’s where I went to work with my father,” said Harrison, “in the mine for four months.”  

His father, Philip Harrison Sr., died from lung cancer at age 43. Harrison has arranged four funerals for fellow miners like his dad.

He remembered drinking what he believed to be contaminated water. Now, the 73-year-old suffers from chronic renal failure, or kidney disease. 

“I don’t know how many cups of water I used to drink at the mine. Everybody else did. They said this is good mountain water,” added Harrison. “We lost a lot of good people from Cove, most of them were my uncles, they’re all gone. I didn’t get compensated, so I just left it like that.”

Maggie Billiman is from Sawmill, near Fort Defiance, and the daughter of Navajo Code Talker Howard Billiman Jr., who died from stomach cancer in 2001. Her sister, Julia, was also diagnosed with bladder cancer. 

Although their family is already covered by RECA, they need an extension to give them ample time to apply for compensation.

“He suffered, he fought for our country, won the war, and then came home, and suffered some more,” said the 63-year-old Billiman. “It’s not about the money. It’s about the human life.” 

Harrison and the Billiman sisters are among at least five members of the Navajo Nation and another six members from the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, part of a larger group traveling from five states and Guam to the nation’s capital. 

Introduced by Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Reauthorization Act eventually passed the Senate 69-30 in March. Arizona Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema co-sponsored that bill.

This congressional development followed months after an amendment to expand RECA was cut from the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, during last summer. 

Without this proposed provision in the latest defense bill signed into law back in December, Congress has no choice but to consider passing a separate amendment to reauthorize the federal program before its sunset date of June 10.

First enacted in 1990, RECA has been providing financial support for more than three decades to victims of uranium exposure who participated in atomic weapons testing or lived near sites where atmospheric nuclear testing occurred between 1951 and 1992. 

Harrison, a founding member and former president of the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee, has routinely traveled to D.C. to address this issue over the decades by testifying at congressional hearings and even drafting legislation, including language that appears in the new RECA amendment.

“I’m telling Congress, that look, ‘We were the first responders to national security with the threat of Russia, the threat of Nazis, the Cold War,’” explained Harrison. “‘You gave these uneducated shovels to dig the element to create nuclear weapons. And we did that. Services have been rendered.’”

Now, they want compensation. More than $2.4 billion in benefits have been disbursed to over 38,000 claimants so far. 

Among them, more than 5,000 claims from tribal members have been granted, with about 86% of those claimants hailing from the Navajo Nation. They’ve received awards totaling more than $298 million. 

“‘People are grieving. We’re devastated, so why are you ignoring us? So that’s my message to Washington,” added Harrison, “but we’re hoping to get RECA extended two more years, and also include the amendment, the expansion to six years.”

If approved, RECA could be extended for up to another six years, or until 2030.

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.