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'The sacrificial generation'
Post-’71 Uranium Workers champion dies; fight for compensation continues
By Kathy Helms
Special correspondent email@example.com
GRANTS — When Cipriano “Cip” Lucero died in May, the Post-’71 Uranium Workers Committee lost its poster child.
Lucero worked in the uranium industry for eight years, starting in 1977, but it was several years later before he was given a badge that measured his exposure to gamma radiation. After that, he was told on three separate occasions that he had been overexposed.
As a result, Lucero’s health began deteriorating when he was in his early 20s. He sent testimony to Washington in 2017 stating that he had shortness of breath from scarring in his lungs, which required him to be on oxygen 24/7.
"The diagnosis is pulmonary fibrosis, a disease acknowledged by the current RECA [Radiation Exposure Compensation Act] program requirements,” Lucero said. “I have sleep apnea, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, a kidney transplant from kidney failure, arthritis and diabetes.”
He asked congressional leaders to support the RECA amendments that would compensate post ‘71 uranium workers and expand compensation for downwinders. The amendments have been languishing in committee, year after year, for the past decade.
When Lucero worked at the Anaconda uranium mill, one of his jobs was in the yellowcake tank area where he was required to remove the yellowcake from the floors and walls of the processing areas. Large scoop shovels and large flat scrapers were needed because the yellowcake was stuck on every surface, he said.
“When the yellowcake was dry it had the consistency of baking flour, so when it was being loaded into the barrels via a drop chute, the whole room was a giant dust storm of deadly yellowcake,” Lucero said. “There was a ventilation system in the form of a single fan, but it was much too small and inefficient to control the quantity of yellowcake in the air and it only worked sometimes due to the yellowcake build-up that covered it.”
His respiratory protection consisted of a single paper mask per shift and the mask was useless after the first hour or so because it was covered in yellowcake, he said. “Most of the rest of the shift I used a bandana to cover my face but that stopped little of the yellowcake dust from being inhaled directly. There was no real protection from overexposure to radiation in the yellowcake area.”
Lucero said the uranium workers were not told about the dangers of working in radiation or how much radiation they were being exposed to because the government wanted the profits over protecting the workers.
“The post ‘71 uranium workers are suffering with the same illnesses and diseases as the workers before us, but we are ignored. ... It is time for all the uranium-impacted workers to be compensated justly,” he said.
Lucero left the uranium industry in 1985, but it wasn’t until 12 years later that he began showing signs of illness.
"Cip first got sick in 1997," Liz Lucero, his widow and co-chair of the Post-’71 Uranium Workers Committee, said. “He got heart problems and then probably about two years later he started getting kidney problems. Then his kidneys started failing and it just kept on going.”
His kidney function was at 20% by 2000 and he was preparing to start dialysis. He was put at the top of the list for a kidney transplant and was called to come to Albuquerque three times after being told they had a kidney for him.
“We would go over there and they would say, ‘Nope, it’s not right for you,’” Liz Lucero said. “Then we went another time and they told us, ‘Can you wait around for a while to see if it will be compatible?’ So we waited. They told us that there was a little girl who was only 13 years old that needed a kidney, and Cip said, ‘You give it to her instead.’” It wasn’t until 2006 that he received the third call.
“They told him, ‘Let’s try one more time.’ So they tried one more time and that time they finally gave him the kidney transplant,” Liz Lucero said. “He had even coded on the table but they got him back to life. He had it rough.”
“They have money for everything else but they don’t have money for post-’71,” Liz Lucero said. “That’s crazy. Cip never got compensated for nothing. It’s just depressing. What else has to happen for these guys to get compensated? Do they want everyone from the uranium industry to die?”
Under current law, RECA benefits for uranium miners, millers, and ore transporters are only available if the worker was exposed to radiation before 1972. The Dec. 31, 1971, cutoff date for eligibility was selected because the federal government’s procurement of uranium for atomic weapons ended in 1971.
According to a Jan. 31 Congressional Research Service report, an expansion of RECA to cover post-1971 uranium activities would largely cover workers in the commercial uranium sector, which would expand the program beyond its original statutory intent. Also, an expansion of the downwinder- eligibility area is not supported by a congressionally mandated National Research Council report on atomic test fallout and is not consistent with the program’s stated intent, the report states.
“I don’t give a crap whether uranium is mined for the government or commercial purposes, the government was and always has been responsible for our safety!” Linda Evers, co-chair of the Post’71 committee, stated in an email.
“The government failed to provide competent safety measures for us so they could continue to milk the industry for all the money possible at the cost of our lives.”
After World War II, competition with the Soviet Union to build atomic arsenals spurred a uranium boom. The Atomic Energy Commission’s announcement in 1948 that it would purchase – at a guaranteed price – all the ore that was mined, set off a stampede on the Colorado Plateau.
Hundreds of mines were opened in the Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, and several thousand miners, many of them Navajo, went to work, according to the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments.
U.S. knew of dangers
Although the role of radon daughters was not understood at the time the Atomic Energy Commission began its ore-buying program, findings from European studies were well known to American decision makers, the committee found.
A “mysterious malady” that had been killing silver and uranium miners at an early age in the ore mountains on the border between what is now the Czech Republic and Germany was identified by two researchers in 1879 as intrathoracic malignancy.
“They reported that a miners’ life expectancy was 20 years after entering the mine, and about 75 percent of the miners died of lung cancer,” the report states. “By 1932, Germany and Czechoslovakia deemed the miners’ cancers a compensable occupational disease.”
As soon as the U.S. government began to measure airborne radon levels in western U.S. uranium mines, they found higher levels than those reported in the European mines where excess cancers had been observed, the committee said.
"Who decided we were the sacrificial generation?” Evers asked. “Who decided we didn’t need that many Navajos and that many Hispanics? Because that’s who they’re killing.”
A Post-’71 Uranium Workers Committee survey showed that among those still living, 52% of the workforce in the Grants area are Hispanic and 21% are Native American.
“There’s 73 percent of people of color that die without compensation,” she said.
Photo credit: Kathy Helms/Independent
Photo description: From left, Duane Overstreet, Randal Thomas, Leslie Begay and Tomas Tovar pose for a photo outside an August 2018 meeting on the status of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act amendments. All are post-1971 uranium workers. ...