WELLPINIT, Wash. – Chico Corral’s work history is scoured into his lungs.
Chest X-rays for the 84-year-old show scarring from the dust he inhaled during two decades as a uranium worker on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
The yellow-brown grit hung in the air after blasting at the open-pit uranium mine where Corral worked without a mask or respirator. Later, he breathed in the dust as an employee at an ore processing mill.
Earlier this year, Corral received $65,000 from the federal government through a program that compensates former uranium workers for occupational illnesses. On Wednesday, he’ll attend a U.S. Department of Labor meeting in Spokane to encourage other workers to apply.
The award “doesn’t bring back his health,” said Corrie Glenn, who is helping former uranium workers submit claims through a program run by the Spokane Tribe.
Corral has asthma and lung disease, which leaves him short of breath. But the $65,000 did allow Corral and his wife, Charlotte, a hotel housekeeper, to pay off medical debt – a relief for the couple.
“Charlotte was killing herself to pay off my medical bills,” said Corral, a resident of Wellpinit who spends most of his days in a recliner because of his health problems. “That’s what was worrying me the most.”
Several hundred former uranium workers, both Spokane tribal members and non-natives, could be eligible for the federal compensation. Uranium was discovered on the Spokane Reservation in the 1950s. At the production peak, about 500 people worked in the industry.
Glenn is encouraging former workers to apply while they can get free assistance with applications from the Spokane Tribe. A federal grant paying for the tribe’s program expires at the end of August, though Glenn and a co-worker hope to continue helping people through the end of the year.
“We assist anyone. You don’t have to be native,” said Tracy Kieffer, the program’s case manager and outreach coordinator.
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, also known as RECA, acknowledges the role that domestic uranium played in the government’s nuclear testing from the 1940s to the 1960s. Former miners, ore haulers and mill employees who worked in the industry through 1971 are eligible to apply for compensation for certain types of illnesses, such as kidney and lung disease and some cancers.
Workers can receive up to $400,000 through several RECA programs and insurance to help with health-care costs, Glenn said. Amounts vary based on estimated radiation exposure. In some cases, family members of a deceased worker can apply.
However, successful applications require extensive documentation of health and work histories. Corral and a volunteer advocate spent five years mired in the process before he received his award.
“They were asking for documents going back 50 years,” Corral said. Some of his co-workers who started the application process gave up. “But I got stubborn, I wouldn’t let it go,” he said.
Another application, which would compensate him for kidney disease, is still pending.
The Spokane Tribe’s program can help with the application process, said Kieffer, the outreach coordinator.
Some people walk into Kieffer’s office with binders of pay stubs from the 1960s. But most need help locating those items, she said. She helps answer questions and tracks down documents for proving identity, work history and health diagnoses.
In addition to former uranium workers, Kieffer has worked with former Hanford Nuclear Reservation employees and a Nevada nuclear test site downwinder.
Since the Spokane Tribe’s program started in 2012, it’s helped a dozen individuals receive $2.5 million in compensation for radiation-related illnesses. Three awards are pending.
A federal review of applications typically takes 10 months to a year, though the Department of Labor tries to fast-track the process for those who are terminally ill, Kieffer said.
She and Glenn are making a final push to locate eligible workers and get applications in before the grant funding runs out. Sometimes, they encounter skepticism about the federal compensation program, Glenn said.
Some people had earlier applications turned down and are reluctant to reapply, he said. Others don’t want to give out that much personal information.
Corral, meanwhile, looks back with mixed feelings on his two decades in the uranium industry.
He and his late wife, Eveleen, who was a member of the Spokane Tribe, raised seven children on his paycheck. Before the last mine on the reservation shut down in the early 1980s, he was earning nearly $12 per hour working at the ore-processing mill. “It was a lot of money for the time,” he said.
But in addition to his exposure, he brought the dust from the uranium ore home on his work clothes. Eveleen died of leukemia and one of his daughters has cancer. Corral wonders if the dust affected his family’s health.
There was a washing machine at the mill site for work clothes. But, “you had 42 guys working there,” he said. “How could we all wash our clothes?”
From his recliner, Corral spends his days watching TV. Re-runs of old Billy Graham crusades are among his favorite. His faith helps him find peace, Corral said.
“I praise God that he keeps me going from day to day,” he said. “As long as I have food to eat, and a place to live, I’m really satisfied.”
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