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RESEP: Downwind, 70 Years Later

An archive black and white photograph of an above-ground nuclear test in the US desert, with three men looking on.
In 1955, the Federal Civil Defense Administration triggered a 30-kiloton nuclear bomb in the Nevada desert.
Known as “Operation Cue,” it was one of about 200 above-ground tests that spread radiation across 12 southwestern states.

Project Officer Katy Lloyd first heard the improbable story last March, on a site visit to the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, N.M.

An old ledger book had been found. In it were lists of names of Native Americans who had worked as movie extras and stunt-doubles in the heyday of the Western film craze, in a place called Goulding’s Trading Post near Monument Valley, Utah – “where they once filmed John Wayne” classics, like Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The discovery would become one of the latest chapters in the long history of the Atomic Age and a federal program known as RESEP, which has been part of the HRSA portfolio for more than a decade.

From 1945 to 1962, the U.S. conducted nearly 200 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, affecting desert-dwellers in 12 Southwestern states. In addition to these “down-winders" in the path of the fallout, tens of thousands of uranium mine workers were exposed to radioactive dust and tailings on the job.

By 1990, federal legislation was enacted to compensate affected people, many of whom had died, moved on, or were otherwise hard to identify.  By 2000, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was broadened to include the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program (RESEP).

Lloyd of FORHP explained that many down-winders are now deceased – essentially due to “how the wind blew” on a particular day – but may have surviving family members who also were exposed to radiation and who could be eligible for the program.

In addition, an estimated 1,000 uranium mines, boarded in the early-90s and scattered over nearly 27,000 miles of largely unmarked Navajo territory, are responsible for “chronic, low-level exposure that is hard to quantify,” Lloyd said.

Two images. Left: Rena Gould of the IHS Northern Navajo Medical Center. Right: A  photograph of the Kayenta Homes in Arizona across a backdrop of open, western plains.
Rena Gould of the IHS Northern Navajo Medical Center details potential radiological diseases and their symptoms; at right,
the Kayenta Homes in Arizona illustrate how exposed communities are on the open, western plains to windborne dust and
toxins. The dwellings are among thousands managed by the Navajo Housing Authority across three western states

“People may be eligible, but don’t realize it,” said Lloyd, who received her MPH from Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. “We get the information out, communicate the importance of prevention and early detection,” but many survivors “are older or geographically isolated, not aware of their exposure, the extent of it, or that they’re able to file” for monetary claims.

So the old ledger book represents a treasure trove of potential radiation victims who appeared in the Western movies of that era. It was on a visit to the desert in March that Lloyd and Department of Justice attorneys first learned about it.

Today, the Navajo Uranium Workers are using the old ledger to search for the actors, Lloyd said, “a very innovative approach to solving a decades-old challenge” in locating people who might be unknowingly suffering from radiogenic cancers and other illnesses.

“There are often no physical addresses in Indian country,” she added.

The eight HRSA-funded RESEP clinics are mostly beset by jam-packed screening schedules.  But they are adept at operating off site and “finding clinic space for screenings, especially chest X-rays and spirometry,” said Lloyd.

Patients are mainly Native American and Hispanic – many, low-income and lacking health coverage. RESEP grantees are practiced at early diagnosis and treatment, and also offer assistance in documenting eligibility for compensation.

Left to right: Jarvina Lee, Navajo Uranium Workers union; Jason Bougere, DOJ attorney; Keith Williams, DOJ Claims Examiner; Luci Begay, Outreach Coordinator, Utah Navajo Health Systems; Dr. Linda Knedler, IHS Project Director; Unidentified (back row); Rena Gould, IHS Outreach Coordinator; Katherine Lloyd, HRSA; Candie Toliver, DOJ Claims Examiner.
Left to right: Jarvina Lee, Navajo Uranium Workers union; Jason Bougere, DOJ attorney; Keith Williams,
DOJ  Claims Examiner; Luci Begay, Outreach Coordinator, Utah Navajo Health Systems; Dr. Linda Knedler,
IHS Project Director;  Unidentified (back row);  Rena Gould, IHS Outreach Coordinator;  Katherine Lloyd, HRSA;
Candie Toliver, DOJ Claims Examiner.

Multiple federal agencies are involved – including Labor, Energy and CDC. HRSA funds clinics in five of the 12 most-affected states: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Others include Idaho, North and South Dakota, Oregon, Texas, Washington and Wyoming.

Lloyd said an influx of applicants is expected over the next nine years as the legislation approaches its sunset date.

HRSA's RESEP grantees are: San Juan Health Services, Inc., Monticello, UT; North Country Healthcare Inc., Flagstaff, AZ; National Jewish Health, Denver, CO; University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center; University of Nevada School of Medicine; Dixie Regional Healthcare Intermountain Healthcare, Inc., St. George, UT; Navajo Health Systems, Montezuma Creek, UT; Indian Health Service, Northern Navajo Medical Center, Shiprock, NM.

To learn more about RESEP; or visit the Department of Justice RECA page

Date Last Reviewed:  April 2017