Originally created 03/19/01

Uranium miners: Dying for relief



Richard Leavell doesn't want to die with a government IOU in his pocket.

Like his father, Merle, Leavell helped the United States fight the Cold War from the trenches of the Colorado Plateau. And like his father, he paid a high price.

The Leavells were uranium miners, helping provide the raw material America craved for its nuclear arsenal.

Only years later did the federal government tell miners about the deadly health risks they faced while blasting and digging through the hills of the Four Corners region, breathing radioactive dust that would take its toll as they aged.

After Merle Leavell was left with radiation-related lung damage, the federal government promised $100,000 of "compassionate compensation" under a law enacted by Congress in 1990. But the check didn't arrive until after his death in 1995.

Now the same thing could happen to his son because of a funding oversight in Congress last year and a long list of unpaid government IOUs.

At 57, Richard Leavell suffers from pulmonary fibrosis and silicosis of the lungs, which leave him gasping for air and tied to expensive, ever-present bottles of oxygen.

"I can't do anything," he said. "This is no kind of life."

Last year, the government sent him a notice that he qualifies for $100,000 compensation. "Regretfully," the letter said, there's no money to back it up.

Doctors aren't sure whether Leavell, who lives in Cortez, Colo., will live another six months or several years, but he says government officials don't seem to be in any hurry.

"They told us they accept responsibility, and this was supposed to be some kind of apology," Leavell said. "It's not much of an apology if you don't get it."

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act is in a crisis, but even an emergency fix could come too late for many of the 275 aging former miners, nuclear test participants, downwinders or their surviving spouses with unpaid IOUs.

Commonly known as RECA, the program got only $10.8 million this fiscal year but needs at least $84 million on top of that to pay all the claims expected to be approved in 2001.

Although Congress voted to increase each victim's compensation by $50,000, President Bush put that on hold while he reviews virtually every new regulation approved last year. Bush also signaled he is reluctant to approve any supplemental funding requests while he focuses on a proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut.

"Here we've got this huge surplus in Washington, D.C., and the government is sending these IOUs to people who are dying," said Rebecca Rockwell, a private investigator from Durango, Colo., who helps miners compile their claims.

"I've lost 10 of my IOU holders since October," Rockwell said. "The problem is people are dying. I've gone to about as many funerals as I can take."

Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Pete Domenici of New Mexico recently introduced legislation asking for $84 million in emergency appropriations. Rep. Scott McInnis, a Republican whose district includes the mining country of western Colorado, plans to introduce a House version of the emergency funding bill.

However, legislative analysts say it's unlikely any new money will be approved before the summer or, more likely, at the end of the fiscal year in October.

The IOUs are worse than an embarrassment or inconvenience, said Ed Brickey, co-chairman of the Western States RECA Reform Coalition, a collection of citizen groups that are advocates for victims covered by the act.

"It has been an injustice to delay any further appropriations or the regulations because the people that have (IOUs) are dying," Brickey said.

The RECA program has long been plagued by complaints about a complex application process that often takes victims many tries and several years to clear.

The program got into its current funding mess during the 11th-hour haggling over the budget in late 2000. Ironically, it came just months after Congress amended the law to ease restrictions, cover more medical conditions, add another $50,000 in compensation under a separate program, and allow uranium mill workers and ore transporters to qualify for the first time.

The Justice Department estimated it would take $93 million to cover all the claims expected to be approved in fiscal 2001. But that request came too late, and when the budget was approved in December it included only $10.8 million for the trust fund. The shortfall includes about $23 million for those already waiting for their money.

The waiting has left many victims bitter and hopeless in the small towns of southern and western Colorado, eastern Utah and northern New Mexico, where uranium once meant a livelihood.

"These guys went underground. They would work their butts off, sometimes 10 to 16 hours a day ... . so the government could get their damned uranium," said Anna Cox of Montrose, Colo. "And how do they get repaid? They die for it, with a promissory note that maybe you'll get something .... after you're dead."

Her 63-year-old husband, Eugene, has lung cancer. He worked 10 years in the uranium mines outside Grants, N.M., and Naturita, Slick Rock and Gateway, Colo.

In the early days, before strict radon monitoring, companies and workers gave little regard to the health risks, he said.

"It was work, guaranteed," Eugene Cox said. "You drilled holes with a jackhammer and you shot, blasted out. Then you loaded, either with a slusher or by hand and a scoop shovel."

Dust filled the air, but workers never wore protective masks. They used gloves only if they brought their own. Some miners remember days when the only "fresh air" they breathed was what leaked out of the air compressors that ran the jackhammers.

"I was a young, healthy man," Eugene Cox said. "I did not know. It was a livelihood for me and my three children and my wife."

It took three years for Eugene Cox to verify his work history and qualify his illness for compensation. Last year, he finally got an approval letter, which explained the lack of funding and told him to wait.

"I stuck it in a box," Anna Cox said. "That's what good it's doing me."

Uranium left its mark on whole communities throughout the Four Corners region.

Just across the Colorado border in tiny Monticello, Utah, local newspaper editor Bill Boyle has a map stuck with more than 200 pins, one for each local resident who died or is dying of a radiation-related illness.

One pin represents a small, one-story house in the center of town.

There, former miner Joe Torres has turned his family's living room into a medical ward, with a bed propped where the sofa should be. Cancer has spread from his lungs to his liver, and a government IOU is doing him little good when he needs to buy more painkilling patches.

"I'm very shaken," he said. "I can't do a bit of work. And Social Security doesn't give me enough money to pay for my medicines. .. . I'd like to get at least part of my money to get by."

Combined, he and his wife, Vicenta, get just over $1,000 a month from Social Security. The painkillers alone cost $300 a month, and health insurance is coming due soon, she said.

Torres, 74, started working in the mines in 1951.

"They went in and worked and came back pretty well dusty from head to toe," Vicenta remembers. "But he had no idea that in time it would do something to them."

Shortly after talking with a reporter, Torres was hospitalized.

Since 1990, the radiation compensation program has relied on year-to-year allocations in the federal budget. Several lawmakers say it should be converted into an entitlement program so payments are guaranteed without a year-to-year budget fight. But they disagree on how to accomplish that.

Regardless of the answer, Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., says filling the trust fund's coffers should be a national priority.

"These people, as you know, have been jacked around for a lot of years," he said. "The statement we would make by providing them with this compensation they're due would be more than the money."

Meanwhile, surviving victims struggle to pay high medical bills and widows wait, not knowing when the government's promise will be met.

In Aztec, N.M., 56-year-old miner's widow Helen Story says she works two jobs - a day shift and an overnight shift - taking care of elderly hospice patients to get by.

She worked the same jobs while her husband, Jerald, fought the final months against cancer before he died last March at age 59.

Jerald Story started working in the uranium and coal mines as a teenager.

He never built up a pension because, like many miners, he bounced from one company to another over several decades. Health problems forced him to retire and go onto Social Security disability in the early 1980s.

"I was having to work as much as I could, which took time away from him," Helen Story said. "Some days you think you just can't take much more."

The couple first applied for RECA compensation three years ago. The government IOU came after Jerald Story's death, and his widow has become bitter.

"If they weren't going to stand good with the program, they never should have started it," Helen Story scoffs. "It's for sure that if we owed the government, they wouldn't wait this long on us."

(Rocky Mountain News reporter Owen S. Good contributed to this report.)

Key facts about the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act

Victims approved for awards since 1990: 3,595

Pending applications: 1,832 and rising

Value of awards approved: $269 million

Amount paid through March 7: $246 million

Victims with unpaid IOUs: 275

Funding needed for 2001 claims: $93 million to $95 million

Funding Congress actually approved: $10.8 million

Source: U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Senate sources