WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, chaired an official Indian Affairs Committee oversight field hearing entitled “America’s Nuclear Past: Examining the Effects of Radiation on Indian Country” at the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, N.M. Udall was joined by U.S. Representatives Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Deb Haaland (D-N.M.).
The committee examined the unique history and legacy of the atomic age in Indian Country and promoted efforts to ensure that the federal government lives up to its obligations to compensate Native communities hurt by America’s nuclear activities. The lawmakers also discussed the need for cleanup and ongoing maintenance of abandoned uranium mines and sites.
“Uranium mining played a key role in our country’s development of its nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. Much of that mining took place in Indian Country here in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and across the West – exposing uranium workers miners to toxic levels of radiation in the process,” Udall said. “My father, Stewart Udall, and I brought the stories of deceased Navajo uranium miners to light and sued on behalf of their widows for fair compensation by the federal government. In addition to the Navajo miners, countless others were unknowingly exposed to radiation, sacrificing their health, and even their lives, to the Cold War effort. Many of these downwinders, miners, and millers have long since passed, but others are still living with the effects of uranium contamination, decades after mining ceased. So I’m working hard in Congress for legislation that would provide just treatment to victims of radiation exposure through amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Today’s hearing was about understanding the past and remedying past wrongs. It’s also a call to action for the present and future. “
Udall continued, “Thousands of abandoned uranium mines dot the Western landscape, hundreds on the Navajo Nation alone, continuing to expose families to the ill effects of radiation, including kidney failure and cancer – conditions linked to uranium contamination. New research from the Centers for Disease Control report uranium in babies born even now. I vow to continue to fight for the Cold War victims of radiation exposure. I will continue to push for my legislation to amend RECA to include post 71 miners and the Trinity downwinders — to ensure that the federal government lives up to its legal and fiduciary obligations to cleanup and properly maintain the abandoned mines and sites.”
“Today, we gathered to give a voice to Hispanics and Native Americans of New Mexico, whose families continue to be upended by radiation exposure from mining and the Trinity test. Seventy years ago, rural New Mexico became ground zero for the detonation of the first nuclear bomb. This marked the beginning of sickness and suffering for generations of people in the Tularosa Basin and in other communities that sacrificed for our collective national security,” said Assistant Speaker Luján. “That is why I have joined with Senator Udall to introduce the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments to compensate those exposed to radiation while working in uranium mines after 1971 or living downwind from atomic weapons tests. This bipartisan legislation is a matter of fairness and justice. We must see it passed.”
“We all deserve to live healthy lives free from the impacts of harmful radiation, but the legacy of uranium mining in Indian Country puts our communities at risk. Everyone in the auditorium today probably knew someone who is affected by working in a uranium mine. I certainly do. A relative of mine lost his hearing due to his exposure. Today’s hearing shed light on the impacts, the current situation, and improvements we can implement to ensure our communities can heal,” said Haaland.
Udall has worked for years to expand the original Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). During the hearing, Udall discussed his legislation to expand coverage of the RECA legislation to cover victims in New Mexico and Indian Country, including the Post-1971 Uranium Workers and the Tularosa Downwinders.
The first panel of witnesses included David W. Gray, Deputy Regional Administrator of Region 6 for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Peter O’ Konski, Deputy Director of the Office of Legacy Management at the Department of Energy (DOE) and Dr. Loretta Christensen, Chief Medical Officer of the Navajo Area Indian Health Service.
The second panel of witnesses included The Honorable Michael Chavarria, Governor of Santa Clara Pueblo, The Honorable Jonathan Nez, President of Navajo Nation, Ryan Riley, Council Representative of Laguna Pueblo, Phil Harrison, Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee Advocate, and Tina Cordova, Co-Founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium.