ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For much of the 20th century, New Mexicans were not warned about the health effects of working or living near uranium mines or nuclear test sites. Radiation exposure still affects residents today, including a disproportionate number of Native Americans.
On Monday, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., served as chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in Albuquerque to examine radiation exposure effects in Indian Country. Udall was joined by U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Deb Haaland for the hearing at the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute.
Udall has introduced legislation in the Senate to amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). The amended law would include post-1971 uranium workers and “downwinders” of nuclear radiation in New Mexico. Luján has introduced similar amendments in the House.
“There is no doubt that we have made progress, but there is still so much more to do in providing compensation and cleaning up abandoned uranium mines,” Udall said. “Today’s hearing is about understanding the past and remedying those mistakes.”
The 1945 Trinity test site at White Sands Missile Range produced a large plume of radioactive ash. Monday’s panelists also discussed nuclear contamination at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the legacy of uranium mining.
Haaland said citizens deserve compensation for sacrificing their health – often unknowingly – for America’s nuclear weapons and energy industry.
“Everyone in this audience probably knows someone whose health has been affected by working in the uranium mines,” she said.
A federal study found nearly a fourth of Navajo women had elevated levels of uranium in their blood, according to Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo Area office of the Indian Health Service. The office is prioritizing cancer screenings and a centralized database of cancer occurrences on tribal land.
“It’s like keeping your hand over a flame. You’re going to keep getting burned,” she said. “If you’re continually exposed to this contamination, you’re going to keep getting these diseases.”
Several federal agencies identify and clean up abandoned uranium mines on tribal land, but sometimes those efforts are criticized as fragmented and slow to produce change.
“Our participation in the Cold War has devastated our lands and our way of life as Navajo people,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. “The impact is not only physical, but spiritual and emotional.”
Tedd Gallegos, who attended Monday’s hearing, worked for 16 years at a uranium mine near Grants. He was recently diagnosed with a potentially cancerous spot on his lung.
“I have some insurance and I could sell my house, but where would that leave my family?” Gallegos told the Journal. “I’m here to see what’s going on with compensation from the government before I start getting treatment.”
Luján said the government should help those whose lives were upended by radiation exposure. He pointed out that Native Americans are at greater risk for radioactive contamination in their water supply.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.