Nuclear-Free Future

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Window Rock
1 December 2006

Phil Harrison

Phil Harrison, born on June 11, 1950, on his mother’s side from the Red-House Clan, and on his father’s side from the Red-Sand-Run-Into-The-Water Clan, cannot talk about what uranium mining has meant to the Diné without becoming emotional. The man has witnessed too much suffering. On September 16, 1992, he stood before the international Board of Listeners at the World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg and told in his rich, flowing voice of the hard death his father had suffered and of the nightmares that had plagued his growing up. Workers in the early primitive, unventilated uranium mines that dot the Red Valley Area were issued no gloves, respiratory devices, or protective clothing. Nor was health care part of their employee package. Many fathers died young. Phil’s father died at the age of 43.

The source of Phil Harrison’s strength, empowering him to this very day, is his anger. Phil’s major undertaking of the past thirty years has been to seek recognition and compensation for the uranium miners whose health and lives were sacrificed to the uranium monster. Nothing more and nothing less. That this simple wish for justice would turn into such a hard and time-consuming ordeal was not his choosing – that’s another credit the skilled practitioners of spin at uranium mining enterprises like Kerr McGee (where the murdered Karen Silkwood was employed) can claim for themselves.

During the eighties Phil and a number of fellow-minded individuals founded the Uranium Radiation Victims Committee and began, in league with other groups and NGOs, the hard but essential work of winning politicians in Washington to their side.

“If a Native American uranium miner with lung cancer admits to smoking tobacco during a religious ceremony his compensation claim is dismissed.”

Their lobbyist actions bore fruit: in 1990, congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), a federal statute providing monetary compensation for uranium miners, millers, and ore transporters who worked prior to 1971 and, owing to their employment, developed or succumbed to (in which case their families become the recipients) lung cancer, fibrosis of the lung, pulmonary fibrosis, corpulmonale related to fibrosis of the lung, silicosis, pneumoconiosis, and in the case of millers and ore transporters, renal cancer or chronic renal disease. Those who fulfilled the criteria could expect compensation up to the sum of $100,000.

But fulfilling the criteria is riddled with catches, especially for Native Americans foreign to a courtroom’s fetish for forms. Phil explains to us from his desk in Shiprock, New Mexcico: “If a widow of a miner cannot produce a marriage certificate, plus the birth certificate and working papers of her deceased husband, the family is excluded from compensation. Not only that, but if a Native American miner with lung cancer admits to smoking tobacco during a religious ceremony his compensation claim is dismissed.” We also learned from Phil that the US government is prone to withhold payments to those entitled to compensation, claiming a lack of funding. And that now, to add insult to unredressed injury, while many uranium radiation victims continue to receive IOUs, President George W. Bush has approved $30 million to explore new uranium mining in the region where they live.

One potential beneficiary of the Bush exploration incentives is Hydro Resources Incorporated (HRI), a Texas-based uranium mining corporation that is proposing to mine an area near Church Rock, the site of the nation’s worst radioactive spill, when in 1979 a tailings dam burst sending eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated water into the Rio Puerco. In HRI’s proposals, the uranium would be removed by in situ leach mining, a process of injecting a watery solution into the ground to strip the uranium from the underlying sandstone. In Texas, this method has been shown to increase concentrations of uranium, other radioactive elements, and heavy metals in the groundwater by grim margins.

“I know that people are worried about the water, but there’s really no chance that what we do will affect it,” says Hydro Resources’ Frank Lichnovsky. “There’s no danger”.

“Heard that one before”, says Phil.

–Claus Biegert
English version: Craig Reishus