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Scab mine workers had more severe uranium exposure

by Kathy HelmsGallup Independent
March 3rd, 2004

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.


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