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Uranium mining left a legacy of death

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Behind patriarchal wrinkles, DeVar Shumway's eyes still twinkle as he recalls the glory days of uranium mining with his sons in southeastern Utah.

"It was like digging for buried treasure," the 80-year-old Blanding resident smiles, his eyes staring fondly into a distant chasm of nostalgia.

For decades, Shumway and his family burrowed deep into the uranium-rich Colorado Plateau, emerging triumphantly with tons of ore from which soft "yellowcake" would be extracted to feed the insatiable Cold War nuclear appetite of the U.S. government.

Historians call it the "uranium frenzy," a time when the Cold War was hot and nothing — including the sacrifice of thousands of human lives — was too great a price to pay to stockpile the powder needed to trigger the nation's nuclear arsenal.

America may have won the Cold War, but a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Utah is left with a toxic legacy that has killed and sickened untold thousands of uranium miners and mill workers, contaminated water supplies for generations to come, and infected an otherwise stunning red-rock landscape with millions of tons of radioactive mill tailings that will cost American taxpayers billions of dollars to remove and bury safely out of sight.

Engineers say cleaning up the mill tailings at a single site, the defunct Atlas mill on the banks of the Colorado River just outside of Moab, could cost $300 million.

Those living in downstream states like Arizona and California say it is a small price to pay for safe drinking water. Survivors of the uranium frenzy scoff, recalling how they dumped countless tons of radioactive tailings into the Colorado, San Juan and La Plata rivers over the years. Piles of raw ore with unprofitable concentrations of uranium now lie beneath Lake Powell.

"Las Vegas residents are drinking Colorado River water enriched with uranium," Shumway says with a chuckle.

But families of those who did not survive the effects of prolonged exposure to radiation are not laughing. The dead and dying include miners and mill workers, innocent children who found mill tailings to be an inviting sand box, mothers who swept and dusted the wind-borne radioactive dust that filtered into their homes.

Chip Ward, an environmental activist and author of the book "Canaries on the Rim," argues the U.S. government officials knowingly and willfully sacrificed rural Utahns' health and safety in their urgency for nuclear superiority.

Anxious to prove their patriotism, rural Utahns embraced the uranium frenzy with trusting abandon, Ward believes. So did destitute Navajos. So did cash-poor ranchers and farmers elsewhere in the Four Corners area of neighboring Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

Government and mining company officials assured them there were no risks.

Dead and dying

Dale Maughan, the former principal of Monticello High School, rues the day he moved his family to southeastern Utah. "My son would still be alive today," he says, pointing the finger of blame unmistakably at the government.

Jon Alan Maughan died July 5,1966, of leukemia two months before his 17th birthday. The captain of his high school basketball team, Jon Alan used to swim with friends in the pond of water that collected at the uranium mill on the outskirts of this small town of less than a thousand people.

Within a radius of five or six blocks of the Maughan home, six other young people died of leukemia, the oldest a young mother in her 20s, the youngest a child of 4. Most were teenagers.

"I blame the government," Maughan said. "Their scientists knew the effects of radiation, and they knew the dangers. But they didn't say a word to anyone."

Rell Frederick, now 68, lost a lung to cancer working in the uranium mines in Marysvale in the 1950s. Most of his co-workers are dead from emphysema and various forms of cancer, mostly lung cancer.

After a long shift in the mines, some miners would playfully blow across a device that measured radiation. The Geiger Counter would jump to life.

In 1951 and 1952, safety officials measured the amount of radiation in one Marysvale mine at 6,000 "working levels" at a time when four was considered safe.

Frederick later joined the military where he was involved with nuclear testing and learned about the effects of radiation. Wiser and somewhat frightened, he returned to the Marysvale mines asking questions about safety measures.

"I was told it was radon gas, that it was different from nuclear fallout and there was no danger," he said. "I was a good ol' country boy and I believed them."

He still believed them even after U.S. Health Service officials came to the mine to test the miners. The miners were told they would be notified immediately if the tests showed anything was wrong. None of the miners ever got a call.

Frederick later went to work as a safety inspector for the U.S. government where he was trained in the dangers of radiation and how it affected the human body. "It was a completely different story than what I was told when I worked in the mines," he said.

Arden "Tommy" Higgins, 67, worked 12 years in the mines. He lost part of a lung to cancer and later an ear. He considers himself lucky.

"Most of 'em are dead now, and the ones that are left have some serious problems," he said. "I blame the government. . . . Had I known, I would never have worked there."

Admitting guilt

Congress acknowledged limited government responsibility when it passed in 1990 the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides $100,000 to each underground uranium miner who has one of six lung diseases linked to radiation exposure.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch recently pushed through legislation that expanded the program to include more uranium workers and different types of cancers.

Additionally, the government has sponsored two massive health and mortality studies of former uranium mill workers. The results of the studies should be available this year, according to the Department of Energy.

"It helps that they have admitted some of their guilt," Maughan said. "But it doesn't help when your boy dies. Nothing can compensate for that."

Others, like Shumway, stubbornly assert there are no ill effects from uranium, despite many miners who are dead or dying from cancer blamed on exposure to radiation in the mines. After all, 80-year-old Shumway is still alive.

"I've got more exposure than most and have been patiently waiting 80 years to get paid the $100,000 if you have lung cancer," he said.

Former San Juan County Commissioner Cal Black, one of the most famous uranium prospectors in the region, dismissed the dangers of uranium. He even wore a uranium-laden bolo tie from time to time. He died of cancer, and now his sons, who worked in the mines with him, are showing signs of lung ailments.

The mess we made

State and federal officials are now coming to grips with the stark realization that the legacy of uranium mining extends far beyond the dead and dying. Water and soils contaminated with radiation plague much of rural Utah, and an entire generation unfamiliar with the Cold War frenzy may yet feel its effects.

In Cottonwood Wash outside of Blanding, schoolchildren routinely swim in pools of water with radiation levels above what state water quality experts consider safe. Cows drink it, too, before the water makes its way into the San Juan River where it becomes part of a drinking water supply for millions of unsuspecting downstream users.

And then there is the problem of an estimated 5,000 abandoned uranium mines.

Mark Mesch, who heads the state's abandoned mine reclamation program, recalls how in 1998 he was conducting a bat survey inside one mine near Blanding when he noticed a bright orange object tucked into a drill hole. It was a plastic egg, presumably left behind by a family who used the mine for an Easter egg hunt.

The radiation level inside the abandoned mine was nine times what is considered safe. "You've got kids playing in a mine? How dangerous is that?" Mesch said.

The state is now working with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service on a pilot project that could spend up to $1.2 million to close an estimated 200 uranium mines in Cottonwood Wash and then restore the water quality to safe levels by removing the waste rock and tailings left behind a generation ago.

Almost $500,000 was spent by the state closing more than 200 uranium mines in the Marysvale area. And state and federal officials are hoping to finalize a deal to close hundreds more in the Tuscher Mountains south of Richfield.

Yet thousands more mines, mostly in uranium-rich southeastern Utah, await their turn on the priority list. Quite simply, there isn't enough time or money to close them all quickly or efficiently.

If the price of the Marysvale closures is any indication, it could cost taxpayers $125 million to close just the abandoned uranium mines.

The amount of money being spent to close dangerous mines is miniscule compared to that being spent by Congress to clean up defunct uranium mills. The most costly of the cleanups could be the Atlas site where 10,000 tons of contaminated soils are currently leaching into the Colorado River.

The Department of Energy has already funded cleanups of four uranium mills in Utah and 20 other mill sites around the West. To date, the federal government has spent $15.2 million capping a tailings pile east of Green River in Grand County, $44 million consolidating and burying tailings at a mill on Navajo lands near Mexican Hat, and $84 million moving radioactive tailings from the Vitro site in South Salt Lake to an isolated dump site in Tooele County. The DOE has spent $237 million cleaning up the Monticello mill site, and before all the monitoring is done in 2005 the number will reach $248.7 million.

Scores of smaller, privately owned mills remain lost and forgotten in the canyons of southern Utah where each rainfall carries the radioactive sediments into local streams and, ultimately, into the Colorado River.

Toxic legacy

Undoubtedly, the question of how much the government knew about the dangers of uranium mining will be debated for years to come. But the toxic legacy will remain a permanent fixture in Utah, not only in the haunting faces of the dead peering from family photo albums but in the contaminated water and soils that may yet sicken future generations.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this toxic legacy, Ward believes, is that victims of uranium mining, whether miners or innocents caught in the crosswinds, will remain forgotten soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in the Cold War.

"The Cold War mentality was one where most people accepted there was a war on and there would be casualties," Ward said.

As more and more evidence from the Cold War is made public, those casualties are coming to see what they have all long suspected: Everyone knew the risks except for those actually taking the risks.

Eunice Manzanares didn't know the risks. She was an eighth-grader who suddenly stopped coming to school. "The next thing I knew she had died," said Maughan, her teacher.

"It was leukemia, just like the others," he said. "There is no question in my mind who is at fault."

E-mail: spang@desnews.com; donna@desnews.com