Halchita • Just over the rise from Moren Binale’s house on the northern edge of the Navajo Nation lies a gray aberration atop the eroded red rock landscape: a flat-topped mound of river cobble and gravel more than half a mile across.
The site is the former location of the Mexican Hat Uranium Mill, which processed the radioactive ore from 1957 to 1963.
In the early 1990s, 4.4 million tons of tailings from mills in Mexican Hat and Monument Valley were buried at the site just south of the San Juan River, along with the contaminated remains of homes and a school that once stood in nearby Halchita.
Binale, a member of the Navajo Nation, was hired by a contractor for the Department of Energy to work on those remediation efforts, sloping the tailings piles with heavy machinery before compacting and covering them.
When the Mexican Hat project was completed in 1995, he worked on a similar Superfund project in Monticello as a foreman where he supervised hundreds of workers.
Days were long, sometimes 16 hours, but he was grateful to have a well-paying job in San Juan County, which suffers from the highest poverty rate in Utah.
“The company was treating me really good,” Binale said. He had a company truck and was supervising crews that numbered in the hundreds.
Safety measures were minimal, however. Workers used monitors that tracked long-term radiation exposure, but Binale said it was rare to wear a mask or respirator on the job. “We only had boots and gloves, or sometimes coveralls,” he said.
In 2008, Binale began experiencing shortness of breath and was later diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic lung disease caused by exposure to certain types of dust that has since worsened and now requires him to be on oxygen at all times.
“It’s really awful,” he said. “At night, I don’t even sleep. I just sit up, but sometimes [the oxygen] just won’t help. I just kind of turn it up more and more. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you feel like you’re having a heart attack. Sometimes you think that you’re going to die. When you get up in the morning, you’re grateful to be walking around.”
For the next nine years, Binale fought for compensation under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA), a Department of Labor program that provides compensation and medical benefits to eligible Department of Energy employees who were exposed to certain toxic substances, including uranium.
The process was slow and full of frustrations. Despite filling out round after round of paperwork and taking countless medical tests, Binale’s application was repeatedly denied until he eventually enlisted the help of a costly attorney.
Chip Thomas, a physician who has worked on the Navajo Nation since 1987 and has examined Binale, said it’s not uncommon for him to treat patients suffering from radiation exposure or lung disease related to mine work.
Uranium mining and milling was a major source of employment on the Navajo Nation in the mid-20th Century, when the federal government was heavily subsidizing uranium production for its nuclear weapons program. Over 500 abandoned uranium mines still lay scattered across Navajo lands, poisoning the air, water and people.
The link between radon gas exposure and lung cancer was known as early as 1942, but the occupational hazards were withheld from workers even as the government was researching the effects of radiation on Indigenous miners, often without their consent or knowledge.
“What struck me about Moren was that he’s 20 years younger than most of my [EEOICPA] patients,” said Thomas, who met the 58-year-old Binale last year.
The fact that Binale didn’t work in a mine or mill may have added to the difficulties he faced in getting compensation.
The federal government’s failures to to protect workers in federally subsidized uranium mines and mills from the 1940s to 1970s is well documented, but the workers impacted by Superfund cleanup efforts is less well known.
Thomas links the lung condition Binale developed while working for Department of Energy contractors in the 1990s to a “repeated callousness of the government towards” marginalized groups of people.
Navajo Nation leaders, workers call on Congress to expand and extend RECA
“Radiation exposure [affects] not just those who worked in the mines or who were downwinders,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in an interview. “It also affects those who were cleaning up the waste. Now they’re suffering from what they thought at the time would be safe.”
A similar federal program to the one Binale is a beneficiary of, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), was first passed in 1990 to provide compensation to residents of parts of Utah, Nevada and Arizona who were exposed to radiation from above-ground nuclear weapons testing in Nevada between 1945 and 1962 and to certain uranium miners. The legislation was expanded again in 2000 to include mill workers and ore haulers, but it does not yet cover uranium remediation workers.
Earlier this month, Congress passed a two-year extension of the legislation, which has paid $911 million to over 9,000 uranium workers since it was enacted.
But Nez, the Union of Concerned Scientists and affected workers are calling on Congress to expand the program further to cover remediation workers, additional uranium workers and downwinders, as well as a broader set of radiation-related illnesses. It would also increase compensation.
“We want the federal government to acknowledge this wrongdoing,” Nez said.
“The liability falls on the federal government,” said Phil Harrison, a former uranium miner and remediation worker who is not eligible for RECA compensation under the current law.
“The majority of the Navajos do not read and write and comprehend legal jargon, legal documents,” said Harrison, the lead consultant for the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee. Additionally, victims may live in a hogan without mail service, he said, and it can be a challenge to meet deadlines for paperwork.
Harrison required a kidney transplant as the result of his radiation exposure after working at uranium mines in Gateway, Colo., and later on the cleanup of the Tuba City Rare Metals Mill in Arizona from 1988 to 1990.
Harrison called uranium workers the “first responders in the Cold War,” and compared them to first responders to the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. First responders to the attacks who developed Binale’s condition, pulmonary fibrosis, were paid over $800,000 in compensation, Harrison said, while workers on the Navajo Nation and others still struggle to qualify for the program, which pays between $50,000 and $150,000 for certain workers.
“We want to increase that to $200,000 regardless of worker classification or category of disease,” Nez said.
Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress that would address some of those concerns, and could make Harrison and Binale eligible for RECA coverage.
Harrison traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to advocate for the bill’s passage, which has 18 cosponsors in the Senate and 71 cosponsors in the House.
“If you are a remediation worker, it’s cumbersome and complicated,” Harrison said. “It’s months and months and months of research, reconstruction of where you worked, the location, what you have done, who you worked for, what hospitals you went to.”
One of many changes that are included in the House version of the bill would explicitly expand the legislation to include uranium remediation workers who fell ill.
While Binale received a one-time compensation payout when he was finally approved under the Department of Labor program several years ago and now receives benefits for medical care through the program, he said several of his co-workers from the cleanup efforts have developed similar conditions and have not yet been approved for federal support.
When the Monticello mill closed in 1960, the town’s population was around 2,500 people. Fifty years later, the group Monticello Victims of Mill Tailings Exposure documented over 700 cancer cases from people in the town.
In Red Valley and Cove, Ariz., there have been 400 deaths related to uranium work, Harrison said, including his father, who died at the age of 44 after working in uranium mines.
Binale said that hundreds of residents of Halchita also developed cancers, and he was proud to be a part of the remediation of the Mexican Hat Mill site until he learned of the risks associated with that work.
“They never said, ‘This can kill you,’” Binale said. “The government knew. If I had been told, I wouldn’t have been doing it.”
Correction • June 30, 2022. An earlier version of this article misidentified the federal program that provided Moren Binale compensation for his remediation work, and it contained an error regarding Phil Harrison’s current eligibility for RECA.