Workers Compensation Should Be Provided to American Indian Miners

For decades, Native American miners have worked the mines of the Colorado Plateau. Their job was to with drill deep into the rock and mine out soft uranium ore. The very uranium unearthed by countless American Indians helped produce the nuclear warheads that propelled America to victory during the Cold War.

Meanwhile, these American Indian miners have themselves become casualties of the Cold War as a result of their work. Many of them have died, or are dying, of cancer and other related diseases that results from being exposed to radiation in those mines. Nearly everyone in this community has either lost someone very close to them or are fighting for their own health.

Many of the workers are plagued with scars on their arms, a telltale sign of the dialysis treatments they’ve had to endure over the years. The dialysis is the only available treatment for those who suffer from kidney failure. Blame has been placed on the mines’ drinking water, which has been proven to contain traces of radioactive minerals in scientific testing.

Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990. This law was passed for the purpose of helping the uranium miners and many others who have been suffering from work they’ve done in the mines. The fact is that the majority of this work was simply done to advance the country’s nuclear weapons program.

Under the provisions of the law, every underground uranium miner is entitled to $100,000. The criteria for receiving this compensation is that the miner must experience at least one out of the six lung diseases that stem from exposure to radiation. Hundreds of American Indian miners, who are eligible for this compensation, have not been paid.

The bill that was passed presents the miners with a range of obstacles to overcome. The first step is the most difficult and requires them to fill out paperwork written in English. The problem for these Indian miners is the fact many of them do not understand English that well.

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Astoundingly, only 96 miners who have filed compensation claims through the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers have been approved, even though 242 miners have applied. Overall 1,314 former uranium mines claims have been approved by the Justice Department. This is less than half of all claims that have been filed.

Workers need to prove to the government the amount of time worked in the uranium mines by providing check stubs, records or other documentation as part of the application process. Those types of records are seldom kept by the miners who have been working in the mines for decades. These records are even more troublesome to get a hold of later on.

The Navajo Indian Reservation saw the first uranium mines opening in 1947. At the time, the jobs and occupations which opened up as a result were welcomed. Despite the fact that the wages were low and conditions were poor, many were happy to just have a job.

Radon is one of the most serious hazards presented by mining. A by-product of decaying uranium, radon is odorless, colorless radioactive gas. It was that exposure to radon that is believed to cause the majority of lung problems that makes these miners eligible for the promised government compensation.

In order to facilitate the process of receiving compensation for their injuries, past miners and tribal leaders plan to petition Congress for modification of the bill in the fall. The government’s dilemma lies with the fact that the Navajo miners believe the quality of their work determines the reimbursement they collect.

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Author: Shaney Mansey
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