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The legacy of uranium mining on Navajo lands

FILE - This Nov. 13, 1975, file photo, shows signs along the Rio Puerco warning residents in three languages to avoid the water in Church Rock, N.M. after a uranium tailings spill. A group representing Navajo communities is presenting its case to an international human rights body, saying U.S. regulators violated the rights of tribal members when they cleared the way for uranium mining in western New Mexico. (AP Photo/SMH,File)
FILE - This Nov. 13, 1975, file photo, shows signs along the Rio Puerco warning residents in three languages to avoid the water in Church Rock, N.M. after a uranium tailings spill. A group representing Navajo communities is presenting its case to an international human rights body, saying U.S. regulators violated the rights of tribal members when they cleared the way for uranium mining in western New Mexico. (AP Photo/SMH,File)

News update: The House has now passed a RECA extension. The two-year RECA extension heads to President Biden’s desk next.


For more than 40 years, millions of tons of Uranium ore were mined from Navajo lands to make nuclear weapons.

Thousands of workers were exposed to deadly radiation. Those workers are about to lose funding to cover their health costs.

“The money will not fix the health problems of the folks behind us, but just and fair compensation will help begin the healing process,” Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez says.

Radioactive particles are in the dust, the water, in homes. Workers and their children have unusually high levels of radiation exposure.

But efforts to extend and expand benefits for victims have all failed year after year.

“I had one Navajo elder woman who made the trip to Washington D.C. to testify,” Sen. Ben Ray Luján says. “And she asked Congress one simple question, ‘Are you people waiting for us all to die so the problem goes away?’”

Today, On Point: The toxic legacy of uranium mining on Navajo lands.

Guests

Phil Harrison, senior consultant with the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee. He’s a member of the Navajo Nation and was also an underground uranium miner.

Amber Crotty, Navajo Nation council delegate. (@Kanazbah)

Also Featured

Leslie Begay, a former uranium miner who recently had double lung transplant from radiation exposure.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, U.S. senator from New Mexico. (@SenatorLujan)

Dr. Kaitlin Kelly-Reif, an epidemiologist at the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Doug Brugge, professor and chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut.

Transcript: A Former Uranium Miner On The Toxic Legacy Of Radiation Exposure

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Leslie Begay lives in Coyote Canyon, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation. He was 21, had served in Vietnam, when he started working in the uranium mines in 1983.

LESLIE BEGAY: It was just a rain jacket, safety glasses and a hardhat. That’s it. That’s all we had. Nothing else. It wouldn’t even matter. Even if you were wearing a spacesuit, it will still get on you.

CHAKRABARTI: No face masks. No gas masks, no oxygen tanks. The mining shafts had little to no ventilation, so the miners constantly inhaled toxic dust and air. Leslie was even drinking the water from the mines, never knowing it was dangerous. He worked in uranium mining until 1991. Almost a quarter century later, in 2015, he felt that something wasn’t quite right.

BEGAY: So we went to the hospital and right away, you know, they noticed that there was a problem with me. They sent me to Albuquerque. There was a lung doctor that noticed that I had serious problems.

They asked me many questions to see if I was smoking and see if I was on drugs. I said, No, I haven’t. I have never done those things. … I said, but I have worked in the uranium mine.

CHAKRABARTI: Doctors informed Leslie that radiation exposure could have severely damaged his health. It was the first time he’d ever been told this. Days later, at age 60, Leslie was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease.

The lung scarring, difficulty breathing, getting oxygen into his blood are all irreversible. The most common cause of ILD is long term exposure to hazardous materials. Leslie was given medication and oxygen tanks.

BEGAY: You know, there’s time that you have to hook up both of them. You know, I used to carry two of them to keep my oxygen level high. I used to go through 42 bottles a week.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s 42 bottles of oxygen a week. Leslie sees a lung specialist every six months. But the closest specialists to the Navajo Nation are 3 to 6 hours away. None of Leslie’s doctor visits medication and oxygen are covered by RECA, that congressional law.

He does not qualify for federal compensation, simply because of when he started working in the mines. According to the statute, only those exposed to radiation between 1944 and 1971 qualify. Even though uranium mining continued for another 15 years. Leslie started mining in 1983.

BEGAY: I just don’t see any difference of what they had done before, as far as protection wise. There was no more or no add on than what the past people have done. … The past miners and us miners, there’s nothing different that was changed. Nothing. We did what they did.

CHAKRABARTI: Congress created the eligibility cutoff because in 1971, the federal government was no longer the sole purchaser of uranium extracted from the mines. Therefore, lawmakers saw the government as no longer solely accountable for worker health. But it’s a weak excuse for Leslie Begay.

In September, he received a double lung transplant and he’s recovering. But he has to take a 20 pills a day. And without the health benefits from the VA — recall, he served in the United States military in Vietnam. Without those VA benefits, he could never afford the treatment. But even without that coverage, though, Leslie says he’s barely getting by.

BEGAY: I don’t know why the government thinks of us so low. Like we’re nothing. You know, we didn’t do nothing. We provided them this warhead, you know, and stuff like that. We’re somebody. We are somebody. And we’re being forgotten. I don’t know how to, you know, get into an avenue for them to hear of our situation.

We’re talking about human lives. I think about my people. You know, I think about people that have lost their fathers and their brothers and so on, that we’re still dying off of it. I’m paying like close to $700 a month on my medication.

I’m down to, like, nothing. … Nobody to help me, and nobody to support me. And I mean, we’re all going through and I hope they, you know, that they would understand us and give us what we deserve. This is a long time overdue.

CHAKRABARTI: Leslie Begay. He’s 67 now. And with his new lungs, he plans to fly to Washington later this month to advocate for American coverage for all post-1971 uranium mine workers.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.