Navajo activist Phil Harrison has been fighting for justice for his relatives for more than 40 years. This is his story.
My name is Phil Harrison. I’m an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, a former underground uranium miner, and a former Department of Energy Remediation Worker. I was born in Farmington New Mexico in 1950. In my early childhood years, I grew up during a uranium boom in Cove, Arizona. Cove is in the northeastern part of Arizona bounded by Beautiful Mountain to the south and Carrizo Mountain to the north.
We lived a quarter-mile west of the Kerr McGee mining camp where all the men gathered for work and were trucked to the mountains. My father, Phillip Harrison Sr., was an underground uranium miner and assistant prospector. He searched for hot spots in order to find possible uranium mining locations. He began mining uranium in Cove, Arizona, and ended his 20-year mining career in Gateway, Colorado. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away in January of 1971 at the age of 44 years old.
The community in Cove was bustling, and many families were camped and established residency near the mines. There was a trading post and an elementary day school. I started school here and I still remember the bus drivers. Other family members were busy farming, and farmlands were irrigated with water run-off from the mountains.
The boom started in the 1950s and slowed down by 1966. The uranium ore was taken by truck off the mountain to Monticello, Utah, for processing. Later, a mill was built in Shiprock, New Mexico, by the Vanadium Corporation of America. By the end of 1966, all the uranium workers had moved on to the southwestern part of Utah and Colorado, known as the Colorado Plateau. The miners were never told of the dangers of uranium mining and the deadly consequences of radiation exposure.
Adverse Health Effects for Uranium Workers
Uranium mining and milling slowed down towards 1971, and former uranium workers began suffering from lung disease. The United States Public Health Service and National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health conducted health studies without their consent. There were 740 Navajo uranium workers included in the studies. These studies included the miner’s diagnoses of lung disease and when they died. The living miners had to go through a process to obtain the data related to their study. This data can be used as evidence to pursue compensation through the United States Department of Justice.
In Pursuit of Justice
In the mid-1970s, the Red Valley Chapter of the Navajo Nation began discussing the plight of former uranium workers at their monthly community meetings. Former miner, Frank Smith Sr., spoke of how former uranium workers were getting sick and dying, discussing for the first time the negligence of the federal government. The Red Valley Chapter decided to form a grassroots committee to address the damages and compensation for sick uranium workers. During this time, several miners had already died from lung cancer and other respiratory complications.
The Red Valley chapter decided to pursue a lawsuit for damages. The Navajo Nation government got involved and asked the former United States Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, to be their attorney. So, the first grassroots committee was formed to voice and advocate for compensation for former uranium workers and victims of nuclear weapons testing known as Down Winders. This committee was the only group to represent all the former Cold War Veterans across the United States.
The Road to Compensation
The Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee (NURVC) begin to work with attorneys for the first compensation program established by Congress in October of 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). There were several public meetings held to inform the impacted uranium workers and families that the United States Government was liable for damages. Finally, after 40 years, a compensation program was established with the United States Department of Justice administering the program. Unfortunately, the compensation was for underground uranium workers only. Other uranium workers, such as those that worked in processing facilities and mills, were not included.
A Possible Expansion of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program
For this reason, the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee (NURVC) pursued an Amendment to RECA that included other categories of uranium workers and Down Winders. Recommended changes were drafted around 1995. In 1996, the Navajo Nation hired attorney E. Cooper Brown. Mr. Brown was known to be an expert in the field of radiation victims having worked for Atomic Veterans and Marshall Islanders. With his help, we were able to amend the 1990 legislation, and it was signed into law by President George Bush in July 2000. Sadly, Mr. E. Cooper Brown passed away in August 2019. He was truly a brother and a friend to the Navajo Nation. He is sorely missed as we need help with legal issues.
Even though the law was amended not all requested changes were included, and we were disappointed. The NURVC again made another attempt and submitted changes not included in RECA 2000 law which was introduced in Congress July 2009. One of the changes covered uranium workers that worked from 1972 to 1990, also referred to as Post ’71 workers.
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendment of 2021 is now pending in Congress. The recommended changes will surely benefit many former workers and families. Today we have several working groups working directly with congressional staffers that are constantly engaging in weekly meetings for updates.
The legacy of uranium mining and radiation exposure has taken many lives. Family members are devastated and still grieving for their loved ones. I am proud that I have sacrificed many years being an advocate and the voice of my Navajo people. I am grateful for the many other people who have assisted our group in the past development of compensation programs. Our work also initiated and support the cleanup of contaminated structures, water resources, and abandoned uranium mines. Over the years we have testified several times before the U.S. Congress in Washington, DC. I am not yet finished with my work, even after 43 years. I look forward to the passing of the latest RECA Amendment, which is pending in Washington, DC.
Phil Harrison is a Senior Consultant for the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee.