Families, survivors of Navajo uranium miners struggle with red tape, guilt

May 03, 1993|By New York Times News Service

COVE, Ariz. -- On the way up to the summit of the red rock mesas where uranium was mined for atomic bombs for a quarter century, Jim John pointed to the frail houses and quietly recited the names of Navajo miners who died young of lung cancer.

"John Yellowhorse. Tony Sorrowhorse. Clark Dick. John Tapaha. Peter Yazzie. Harry James. James Yazzie. Billy Johnson. Jimmy Johnson," he said. He did not mention his own father, Lee John, a respected Navajo tribesman who died in 1971 at age 34, leaving behind a widow and nine children.

Of all the chapters of the Cold War and its aftermath in the United States, there are none, perhaps, quite as chilling as what happened to a generation of Navajo men and their families.

Almost 50 years ago, government engineers marched into this ancient valley and urged young Navajo men and boys to put down the tools of sheep herding and farming and take up mining drills and dynamite in the nuclear defense of the nation. The government promised good wages but, federal records show, did nothing to warn the men of the excessive levels of radiation in the uranium mines.

In 1990, though, after years of battle in the courts and in Congress, the United States issued a formal apology and promised to compensate the families of Lee John and other miners injured and killed by radiation in the government mines.

The $100,000 payments are now starting to trickle into Cove and neighboring Red Valley, but instead of joy, or even satisfaction, the federal checks are producing only a new trail of questions, anguish and tears.

Many Navajo families say that compensation is being slowed or prevented by an application system that requires reams of documents on health, occupational and family history -- documents that in many cases were never kept by men and women raised in a traditional system of undocumented tribal law and custom.

Navajo miners like Clifford Frank Sr., 64, are dying from lung cancer even as they await a decision in Washington on their compensation. Frank and his wife, Mary, who speak only Navajo, live in a deteriorating trailer in Oak Springs, Ariz., existing on $324 a month in federal benefits.

"I want them to have this money while he is still alive," said Elizabeth Curley, Mr. Frank's daughter who accompanied him to an interview at the Indian Health Service hospital in Shiprock, N.M. "I want to see him happy. I ask, why are they holding back? He deserves a reward for what he did for our country."

In the late 1970s, Stuart L. Udall, the former interior secretary, filed lawsuits on behalf of the Navajo miners and the residents down-range of the atmospheric nuclear tests.

Though the lawsuits were ultimately unsuccessful in federal court, they became the basis for congressional action.

"They've put these people in a bureaucratic legal maze designed to prevent compensation to Navajo miners. There's no pity for what happened to these people. No understanding. You have a compassionate program administered in an utterly uncompassionate manner," Mr. Udall said.

Even the families that have been compensated are troubled, not only because of jealousy in a region where many households earn less than $5,000 a year but by the guilt from accepting money they feel is tainted by blood and mourning.

The 1990 law was a gesture by the government to acknowledge its complicity in the greatest irony of the cold war: that the principal victims of the United States' development of a nuclear arsenal were Americans, not Russians. "The Congress apologizes on behalf of the nation to individuals and their families for hardships they endured," the law read in part.

Helene Goldberg, who as director of the Torts Branch at the Justice Department administers the compensation program, said she is trying to be sensitive to the Navajos and process applications quickly. But she said that preventing fraud was a primary concern.

"The problem in most cases is that we have not received the documents we need to establish the illness," said Ms. Goldberg. "In spite of that, I think we are doing well. The statute provides claims to be paid in one year; the average approval time is 168 days."

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