Leslie Begay, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and fought in the Vietnam War, explains how uranium mining affected his health and well-being at a forum in Window Rock, Arizona, on October 2, 2019. Photo: Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs examines nuclear legacy in Indian Country

WEBCAST: livestream.com/sipi/scai

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is learning more about the effects of radiation in Indian Country at a field hearing in New Mexico on Monday.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chair of the committee, will lead the hearing. He will hear from tribal leaders, federal officials and advocates about the legacy of the nuclear industry in Indian Country and efforts to clean up contaminated sites on and near tribal lands.

Udall also plans to promote the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2019. The bill would update the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to provide benefits and compensation to tribal citizens and others who were impacted by America's nuclear initiatives.

“Justice is long, long overdue for the New Mexico families and tribal members who are victims of radiation exposure as a result of the government’s nuclear testing during the Cold War,” Udall said of his bipartisan legislation, S.947.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico), whose district includes Pueblo and Navajo citizens affected by the nuclear and uranium industries, and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), whose home community at the Pueblo of Laguna is among those impacted, are expected to join the hearing. Luján is the sponsor and Haaland is the co-sponsor of H.R.3783, the companion version of the RECA bill.

“Radiation exposure disproportionally impacted tribal communities and Native Americans in New Mexico – a health, justice, and fairness disparity that has lingering impacts to this day," said Luján, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Udall in 2020.

“Anyone who has sacrificed their health for the defense of our country deserves to be compensated, but there are communities in New Mexico impacted by uranium mining and atomic weapons tests who are still hurting and have never been compensated,” Haaland, who is one of the first two Native women in Congress, said of the bipartisan measure.

The Senate field hearing comes just a few days after another key lawmaker visited the Navajo Nation to learn more about the health, environmental and social impacts of uranium mining on the tribe's lands. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, heard deeply personal stories from those affected.

"The toxic legacy of uranium mining is etched into the memories of the members of the Navajo Nation," Grijalva said. "Their voices deserve to be heard, and Congress must take action now to protect future generations from uranium mining."

Between 1944 and 1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from the reservation under leases approved by the federal government, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Hundreds of Navajo men and women worked in the mines, and many of them blame cancers, kidney disorders and other diseases on the highly toxic materials they handled in service of the U.S., which used the products primarily to make nuclear weapons.

The effects of uranium extraction extend beyond the severe health issues. The decades of mining have left more than 500 abandoned sites on the reservation, posing an ongoing radioactive risk to residents.

“We won’t know the actual amount of uranium mine waste left behind until remedial site evaluations are completed for all 524 abandoned uranium mine sites on the Navajo Nation," President Jonathan Nez said of the forum, which was hosted in Window Rock, Arizona, the tribe's capital, last Wednesday.

"I have personally heard countless stories from angry and heartbroken Navajo people about how cancer has decimated Navajo families, killing fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins — they have every right to be angry and every right to demand justice," Nez added.

Monday's hearing takes place at 10:30pm Mountain time at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, a Bureau of Indian Education institution in Albuquerque. A live stream should be available at indian.senate.gov.

The witness list follows:

PANEL 1
DAVID W. GRAY
Deputy Regional Administrator, Region 6
Environmental Protection Agency
Dallas, TX

PETER O’ KONSKI
Deputy Director, Office of Legacy Management
Department of Energy
Washington, D.C.

Dr. LORETTA CHRISTENSEN
Chief Medical Officer, Navajo Area
Indian Health Service
Window Rock, AZ

PANEL 2
THE HONORABLE MICHAEL CHAVARRIA
Governor, Santa Clara Pueblo
Santa Clara Pueblo, NM

THE HONORABLE JONATHAN NEZ
President, Navajo Nation
Window Rock, AZ

RYAN RILEY
Council Representative, Laguna Pueblo
Laguna, NM

PHIL HARRISON
Advocate , Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee
Shiprock, NM

TINA CORDOVA
Co-Founder, Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium
Albuquerque, NM

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice
Field Oversight Hearing on “America’s Nuclear Past: Examining the Effects of Radiation in Indian Country.” (October 7, 2019)

Uranium Mining Forum - Navajo Nation

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Navajo Nation welcomes key lawmaker to reservation for uranium mining forum (October 1, 2019)