Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) are seen at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Photo: Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President

Navajo Nation welcomes key lawmaker to reservation for uranium mining forum

Leaders of the Navajo Nation are eager to show how uranium mining continues to affect their people as they host a key member of Congress this week.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, is visiting the reservation on Wednesday to host a forum with uranium miners. Navajo leaders view the event as a unique opportunity to address the health, environmental and social impacts of mining on their reservation, the largest in the United States.

"We have gone to the Capitol Hill with uranium miners and their families to have their voices heard, so this forum is a win for them,” President Jonathan Nez said on Monday.

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.

"Nobody told us it was dangerous to work in the mines. Nobody told us we would suffer from radiation exposure," Leslie Begay, a veteran of the U.S Marine Corps who served in Vietnam, said at the U.S. Capitol in July, when he and other Navajo citizens pressed lawmakers to expand benefits and compensation for those who suffered.

Begay's lungs are failing due to cancer. He is unable to travel by airplane so he and Marie Kirlie, a fellow mine worker, spend four days driving from the reservation to Washington, D.C, to make their voices heard.

"We are here to fight for those who are too sick to travel and for those who died from cancer as a result of working in the uranium mines," Kirlie said this summer.

Stories like those shared by Begay and Kirlie prompted Grijalva to schedule his visit to the reservation. He will be hearing more from uranium miners and their families at the forum, which is being held in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation.

“I met a Navajo uranium miner this summer and was moved by the strength it took to travel to the Capitol because of the health effects he still experiences,” Grijalva said on Monday. “This forum will be an opportunity for me to listen to the Navajo community directly about uranium’s role in their past, present and future.”

“Far too often, Congress only listens to the administrative or industry perspective,” Grijalva added. “This is a time to hear the Indigenous perspective.”

Leslie Begay, a Vietnam veteran with lung problems as a result of uranium mining in the Navajo Nation, speaks with Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) following a Senate Committee on the Judiciary on June 27, 2018. Photo by Bryan Pietsch / Cronkite News

Grijalva isn't the only prominent Democrat paying attention either. Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), a Democratic candidate for president, also has learned from survivors like Begay, who made the same arduous journey to the U.S. Capitol a year ago to explain why addressing uranium is so important in his tribal community.

"What I came to Washington to be about was this idea of pursuit of justice in this country and to really try to speak up for people whose voices are often shut out of institutions and hallways like the one we're sitting in right now," Booker said at a hearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary last June.

The effects of uranium extraction on the Navajo Nation 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.

Through settlements with the uranium industry, the EPA has secured funding to start the assessment and cleanup process at 219 of those abandoned mines. It's not clear when federal authorities will be able to get to the remaining sites but Booker is vowing to clean all of them up should he win the presidency in 2020.

“Many of our uranium workers were never told of the harms of radiation exposure," said Navajo Vice President Lizer. "When the mines closed, many of the mining companies left the nation without support."

"Now, our people are suffering from many health issues caused by radiation exposure," said Lizer, who has been making frequent trips to D.C. to advocate for the Navajo Nation's interests. "It is time to act and bring them justice."

Lizer hopes the forum will draw additional attention to the need to update the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act (RECA). Navajo leaders are seeking amendments to the law, which created a program that provides benefits and compensation for those affected by uranium development, in order to help more of their citizens.

“I represent communities that have suffered many years of the legacy of extraction on the Navajo Nation," Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty said. "We are asking for compensation for our former uranium mine workers as a just cause to the social and environmental injustice that has happened. We are calling on Congress to support the RECA amendments in this bill."

The bill in question is H.R.3783, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) Amendments of 2019. It was introduced by Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico), whose district includes portions of the Navajo Nation.

"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," Luján, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat, said in July.

Grijalva is among the 42 co-sponsors of H.R.3783. Notably, all but one are Democrats, who control the U.S. House of Representatives and are able to secure passage of most legislation due to their hold on the chamber.

Over in the U.S. Senate, which is in Republican hands, the effort is looking a lot more bipartisan, a usually positive sign in an era of divided government. S.947 was introduced by a GOP lawmakers and enjoys the support of several Democrats, including Booker and Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), who serves as the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs but is vacating the seat that Luján is campaigning for.

Grijalva's uranium miners forum is taking place at the Navajo Education Center in Window Rock. It's due to start at 10am Arizona time on Wednesday.

Abandoned Uranium Mines on and near Navajo Nation
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on and near the Navajo Nation. They are found in the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and can be found as far east as To'hajiilee, a satellite tribal community near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Source: EPA

Environmental Protection Agency: Uranium-Contaminated Structures in the Navajo Nation

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