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The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Could Help the Navajo Nation

This op-ed urges young people to pressure the U.S. government to compensate Native communities for radiation poisoning.

This piece was originally published in Teen Vogue, by Julia Cooper, WAND intern.


Imagine a world where you can’t safely live in your home, drink your water, or sit in your yard. Even the dirt is dangerous. That’s happening in the United States right now, and it’s been happening for nearly 80 years. But it doesn’t have to continue this way, and our generation can help make things right.

Starting in the 1940s, Navajo land in the Southwest has been targeted for nuclear weapons testing and uranium mining, making the community’s homes, land, and water radioactive.

“The tragic legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation continues to this day, perhaps to an extent that would not have occurred if it weren’t taking place in a rural, American Indian community,” said Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez in testimony to Congress this March. Again, it seems, Native lives and land have been deemed disposable.

The Navajo, also known as the Diné, living in radiation-contaminated homes for decades or forced off their land are still grappling with health problems. Many have died of cancer, kidney failure, and conditions related to uranium contamination, as NPR has reported. This public health crisis was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit Native communities like the Diné particularly hard thanks to the lack of health care access, a legacy of colonization. Without financial support from the government, many struggle with failing health without adequate treatment. As Senator Ben Ray Luján testified, one Navajo woman even asked him, “Are you waiting for us all to die?

Susan Black, who lost her son Sylvester Stanley to Navajo neuropathy, drank from the open pits during her pregnancy while sheep herding. The grazing territory had been so parched at times they drank from puddles in depressions of the sandstone less than a mile from the mine where uranium residue was everywhere. GAIL FISHER

There is a mechanism the U.S. government established to compensate people whose land is poisoned by government activity: the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). RECA was passed by Congress in 1990 to make amends with those who were diagnosed with cancer or another serious disease as a result of exposure to radiation from nuclear testing or uranium mining.

The problem is that many of those impacted aren’t eligible given the way the legislation is currently written. In his March testimony, Nez urged Congress to take action and amend RECA to help save lives.

Though congressional leaders acknowledge the disproportionate impact of nuclear testing on the Diné, they haven’t made the necessary changes to the law. It’s set to expire in the summer of 2022. We’re using that date as a call for the legislation’s renewal and expansion so that it finally covers all impacted people. The U.S. has a long and shameful history of displacing, marginalizing, and dismissing Native populations, but that history doesn’t have to continue any further into the 21st century. Let’s put the pressure on.

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