American Notes NEW MEXICO

  • Although the Atomic Energy Commission knew by 1951 that venting radon gas from uranium mines could greatly reduce workers' exposure to radiation, it waited 20 years to require the practice at mines in Southwestern states. As a result, thousands of miners, many of them Navajos from local reservations, contracted lung cancer, and many of them died. In 1979, 200 workers with cancer sued the Federal Government for damages, but courts dismissed the case on the ground of sovereign immunity, which exempts the Government from legal liability unless it gives its consent.

    Congress is finally moving to redress this lingering wrong. Last week a Senate energy subcommittee held a hearing in Shiprock, N. Mex., on legislation that would provide $100 million in compensation to miners and their families. As part of that sum, up to $50,000 would be granted to people exposed to radiation as a result of nuclear-bomb tests. The Justice Department, however, opposes the bill, arguing that the compensation amounts to a costly "entitlement program."