Uranium Miners in New Mexico Fight for Compensation
Mon Dec 4, 2006 23:43

Uranium Miners in New Mexico Fight for Compensation

Overexposed - Three-part expose by the Gallup (NM) Independent

81-year-old man waits for uranium workers compensation
Part two of three
by Kathy Helms
Diné Bureau
GRANTS — In 1963, workers at Kerr-McGee uranium mines in the Ambrosia Lake region went on strike. Margarito Martinez of Grants was president of Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union at the time. Martinez said the company tried to take away the workers' benefits, so they walked out.

"But the strike wasn't really about money. It was about radiation. But I couldn't tell the men that we were being contaminated because they wouldn't listen. They had to feed their families. That was the only jobs in the area. We were all making big money. So they kept on working and they kept on getting contaminated including me," Martinez said. He now has silicosis.

"Kerr-McGee tried to take everything away from us, and that wasn't going to happen. We stayed on strike for eight months. The whole town was in an uproar here for a long time. But the union prevailed. I had to go all the way to Washington to sign the back-to-work agreement."

The company hired scabs to take the place of the unionized workers. The scabs showed up for work "all tough, with guns," saying no one was going to stop them, according to Martinez. "We let them cross the picket line. We didn't care. Everything has its justice," he said.

"It's just like Paul Hicks," former president of the New Mexico Uranium Workers Council. Martinez alleges that when Hicks learned that adding Post 71 uranium miners to a 1999 proposed Radiation Exposure Compensation Act amendment would drag out the process, Hicks dropped his support for House Bill 1516 which covered everyone and doubled the amount of compensation per claim and lobbied for passage of Senate Bill 1515. That bill, which gained approval, excluded men and women who worked the mines after 1971.

"He didn't want to add the Post 71 miners because it was going to slow down compensation, and that was wrong. I walked out of a meeting one time, I told him: 'They made you a boss and you doctored the readings so the men could go get contaminated more.'

"That's all right. God works in different methods. He died of cancer. I don't won't nobody to die of cancer but I hate for somebody to be lying. ... But he lived long enough for me to tell him what I thought, and what I knew was right and what was wrong."

Building solidarity
A coal miner for 32 years, Martinez first went to work for the uranium industry in 1959 when he landed a job with Rare Metals. A union man, Martinez and several others tried to organize the workers.

"We even drew it to a vote, but it didn't pass because of the company. So as a result, they fired me and my buddy on Mother's Day. I didn't tell my wife," he said.

In 1960 he went to work for Kerr-McGee at Ambrosia Lake. He also joined the union and was appointed a committeeman. After two failed attempts, he was elected president.

"Kerr-McGee had eight or 10 mines and a mill. That was the biggest operation here, the uranium thing," he said. "These guys were paying big money. Most of us were contract miners, so the more we did, the more we got paid. We cut base pay off at $4 an hour." By the time he retired in 1985 at the age of 62, base pay was nearly $10 an hour.

Martinez was an underground miner who worked graveyard shift. All of the Kerr-McGee mines at Ambrosia Lake were shaft mines, he said.

"Straight down ... 1,000 feet. I was the one that used to drive the tunnel. We called hem track drifts. From the bottom you drive the tunnel to get under the ore bodies. You lay track, ground support you do everything. You get paid by the foot. I used to make all the time like $20 an hour. The most I made was $32 an hour," he said.

Martinez's father showed him how to mine in the coal mines. All mining is based on the same theory, he said, but there is one big difference.

"In the coal mines you have to pump the water in. In the uranium mines, you have to pump the water out. If you didn't you'd drown. If the water table is 30 feet down, you can imagine at 1,000 feet how much water you've got to get rid of," Martinez said.

"The best helpers I ever had were two women. I treated my helpers good. I made it easy for them and they made it easy for me and we made all kinds of money."

At the underground station, Martinez and his helpers would load up their supplies, including dynamite, and take it back tot he tunnel in which they were working. "We all had wet suits. They were yellow. That didn't keep you from getting wet. You know why? Because your own body sweated so much, you got wet from inside and from outside," he said.

Martinez and crew would prepare their ground support and then he would drill enough holes to hold a case of dynamite.

"On graveyard you could blast any time. So as soon as we were ready, we'd blast. The lunchroom was the central blasting area. Everybody has got to be checked off the board before they blast," he said. In accordance with federal law, they were not allowed back in the tunnel until half an hour after they blasted. "The ones that drilled the tunnels, they didn't have too much radiation, but we did," he said.

The dynamite wouldn't bring everything down off the tunnel wall, so while Martinez's helper ran the locomotive and hauled five carloads to the station by herself, Martinez stayed behind and scaled the rough edges with a bar or pick.

"By the time she came back, I was ready to put a tie in. I had to push the rails ahead," laying track as he went, he said.

"When she'd come back, whatever I needed, she brought it from the station. We'd clean all of the blast out and then we'd start the ground support. We would drill up they called it 'pin timbering.' We had wire mesh that was like regular link chain. We used to put 50 feet up every day overhead. We bolted it to the ceiling and then to the walls and then we were ready to start drilling again," he said. The mesh kept the ceiling from collapsing in on them as they worked.

Respirators were basically worthless at protecting against the damaging effects of radiation, according to Martinez.

"You don't breathe radon daughters. They go through you. They go in you. You know where they settle? Right in your bones. You can't see them, smell them or taste them," he said.

"We had a chip in our helmet that said how much exposure we had. They used to change them about every two to three months. Then all of the sudden, they disappeared."

Set up
Martinez recalled one man who allegedly was asked to "doctor the radiation readings" because they were too high. The man refused.

"Guess what happened? They set him up. They put two rolls of toilet paper in his lunch bucket, and they fired him. They accused him of stealing.

"You know what Kerr-McGee and Homestake used to do?" Martinez asked. "If you were overexposed, they used to take you to the surface and say, 'You work on the surface.' Then they would try to cut your wages. They're doing you a favor? No! They're giving you a cut in pay."

Now 81, Martinez has applied for compensation three times since 1985.

"The first time they called me and told me I was approved. My late wife was still alive. I said, 'OK, we'll just let it happen.' Later, they sent me another letter: No." It was denied. "Then here not long ago, my lawyer said I qualified, and we were all happy. But some (woman) there in Washington found a little flaw in the application and they said 'No.'"

On Feb. 13, Martinez got another OK from the U.S. Department of Justice.

"All I'm waiting for is the money. But I won't believe it untilI see the money in my account. My lawyer says the way they drag their feet, it's like they think the money's coming out of their pocket," he said.
Scab mine workers had more severe uranium exposure
Part three
By Kathy Helms
Diné Bureau

GRANTS — Israel Martinez used to work for at a uranium mine and mill. He made a good living nearly $10 an hour shoveling mud in the pitch ditch. Later on, he graduated to yellowcake. Now Martinez has pulmonary fibrosis. His medical records indicate it is from uranium exposure.

He has trouble breathing when he walks more than 100 yards due to restrictive lung disease. "I put my shoes on and it's getting worse. I think I'm going to be suffocated somewhere. The doctor said, too, that something's wrong with my kidneys," Martinez said.

Unfortunately for him, his uranium exposure didn't begin until 1977 when he started work for Homestake Mining Co. in Grants. He stayed there until 1982. On Sept. 22, 1999, he was diagnosed with fibrosis of the lungs. Martinez, 55, said he has never smoked. His pre-employment screening showed he was in good health before he went to work at the mine. "I didn't have no shortness of breath or anything," he said.

He doesn't qualify for compensation under the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) because he didn't work in the mines before 1971, the cutoff date for qualifying. He is one of a group known as the Post 71 miners.

"Once you work in there for a week, you have to eat it (the uranium), swallow it somehow, you know? When I used to get home, I blew my nose and black, black with uranium. And then I work at the mill with yellowcake and they only give us paper masks to work in there. But I see in Albuquerque at Sandia Lab that they wear suits," he said.

Martinez's friend, Margarito Martinez, president of Oil, Chemicals and Atomic Workers Union for 16 years and a strong safety advocate, said Homestake was a "scab mine" which had less emphasis on safety than union mines. He told Israel, "The masks don't stop nothing. The radon daughters go right through you. You've got to have a lead suit an inch thick for a radon daughter not to go through you. It settles in your bones and you have it there for life."

Israel said, "I hurt a lot in my bones and my shoulders. In my back. I didn't know how bad the uranium was until I started going to the (RECA) meetings. All kinds of things happen: Your liver, your stomach, mental disorder you forget a lot. That's what happened to me too."

When Israel rotated to the mill at Homestake, he said, "I worked with that mud, that waste from the natural uranium."

"Slurry," Margarito explained.

"It's gray. Not even the pigs would like to be in there, you know? It smells awful. Sometimes when I cough, it seems like it tastes like that, the way it smelled in there. This other guy that was working with me, Ray Rael, me and him were the only ones that they put us in there. Something is wrong with his bone or something. He has to get blood every two weeks so he can get energy. The doctor told him it was uranium related," Israel said. Now he's going to Tucson, Ariz., for surgery over there.

"They just leave us here to die little by little," he said.

Margarito said the "big escape" for the U.S. government is that the government said it was not buying uranium from 1971 forward. His son, a Post 71 miner, "talks about going to get a bunch of guys and file a class action lawsuit so they will start accepting applications for Post 71 miners."

Israel believes the mines and mills should have been posted. "They should have put a sign there: 'Work At Your Own Risk,' or 'Restricted Area.'"

Margarito said his granddaughter's mother-in-law tried to apply for compensation. "But they said, 'Post 71, no application. You're Post 71.' A lot of women have died of cancer. They worked at the mill; they worked everywhere," he said. There were approximately 1,200 Post 71 miners male and female in the union, according to Margarito.

Israel received lots of "cross-training" during the five years he worked for Homestake. "I started in the pitch ditch, in the sand and mud and then I went with the supplies, and then I was a miner underground. I learned to mine and to drill in hard rock. I blasted and ran the slusher.

"The vent bag where we got the air, when we blasted we got to go in there and seal it up and there's like no air to breathe. You have to wait a half hour and most of the miners they don't want to wait a half hour because they're losing money. So they want to go back in.

"'We have to wait a half hour,' I told them. 'That's what the book says,'" Israel said. "One guy, he says, 'Come on. Let's go in there.' He died because of that. He was only 18 years old. His lungs were all burned up from the dust and then the powder the dynamite."

"When I was underground, there was a big tank of water there that was open on top. The opening was right there in the station. When the motor becomes full with uranium, all of that dust goes in there. They told us that water was good. So I took a drink of that water when I was thirsty," he said.

At the mill, the yellowcake was put in a big barrel called the roaster. "I guess they've got to roast it," Israel said. "That yellowcake, it got pasted on the wall. It's a see-through plastic wall, and it sticks to there. And very hard like glue. The floor too, it had yellowcake all over it. The yellowcake from the walls falls to the floor. It gets all over us." But he washed up before he went home.

Working in mud from the natural uranium ore was much worse than working in the yellowcake because he had to stand in the mud, he said. Though he wore gloves, sometimes his eyes or nose would itch. "You've got to have one of the hands free to get the other glove off and that's how you touch the uranium," he said.

"My youngest daughter, she's 22. She has thyroid. She has to take those pills forever, as long as she lives, hoping it won't turn into cancer. When that cancer gets you, it bites you," Israel said.
Ex-uranium miners fight for compensation
Part one of three
ByKathy Helms
Din Bureau

Pictured are Lucy and Margarito Martinez and Israel Martinez (seated). Both men worked in the uranium mines and later became ill and are still awaiting compensation for their ailments.
GRANTS — Though no relation Margarito Martinez and Israel Martinez have a common bond. They belong to the brotherhood of ailing miners, millers, and transporters who have been diagnosed with uranium-related illnesses. But there the similarities stop.

Margarito has 47 years of coal- and uranium mining experience. He also has silicosis.

On Feb. 13, the day before his nine-year wedding anniversary, Margarito and wife Lucy received a pre-Valentine's Day present from the U.S. Department of Justice: A letter stating that Margarito, who is now 81 years old, has been approved for compensation under the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act (RECA). But considering RECA's lack of funds, it could be a while before that check is in the mail.

Israel, 55, went to work for Homestake Mining Co. in Grants in 1977 and worked in various positions until 1982. A non-smoker, Israel was diagnosed in 1999 with fibrosis of the lungs, which his doctor stated was uranium-related. But as far as RECA and the federal government is concerned, Israel is on his own and ineligible for compensation. Though he worked in the mines, it was at a time the United States says it was no longer buying uranium. Therefore, under RECA, Israel and hundreds of others like him, do not exist.

Israel is one of the Post 71 miners, a forgotten group of men and women who worked in the Southwest's uranium mines after Dec. 31, 1971.

Margarito, a member of the New Mexico Uranium Workers Council (NMUWC), says the reason Israel and the Post 71 miners were not included in RECA is because they were sold out by one of their own people.

In 1999, Margarito and his friend, Paul Hicks, president of NMUWC, wrote a letter appealing to all current and former United Mine Workers of America members who had worked

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