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Cancer victims win small victory

State agrees to consider other Monticello cases

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Deseret Morning News graphic

After years of trying to prove a link between cancer cases and the town's former uranium-processing mill, Monticello residents scored a small victory this week.

The Utah Department of Health has agreed to look at additional cancer cases not listed in the Utah Cancer Registry. The new names include former Monticello residents who moved out of state, were treated out of state, were diagnosed prior to the registry's debut in 1973 or whose names were inadvertently excluded from the registry.

That adds up to 440 names, compiled by members of the Victims of Mill Tailings Exposure committee. A previous health-department study, the findings of which were released at a public hearing in May, evaluated 141 other cancer cases that were part of the Utah Cancer Registry. The findings of that study were inconclusive, partly because the relatively small numbers were not deemed statistically significant.

Whether the new evaluation will conclude that the town has "elevated" rates of cancer, compared to the state at large, won't be clear until this evaluation is completed. The department has set a "very aggressive schedule" to finish this work and hopes to announce its findings by December, according to department spokesman Cory Craynor.

The department will also conduct a public-health assessment of the Monticello mill site and surrounding neighborhoods. The assessment will include exposure history and pathways to get a sense of how much toxicity Monticello residents were exposed to during the mill's operation and its aftermath.

The mill operated on the south side of the southeastern Utah town from 1943 to the beginning of 1960, processing both vanadium and uranium. It is believed that the uranium was used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project.

For years, uranium dust blew across town, eating holes in screens and laundry hanging on the line, and was tracked home by workers to unsuspecting family members. After the mill was shut down, uranium tailings were used by townspeople in the mortar and foundations of their homes, in sandboxes and in road construction.

"We had almost given up hope," said VMTE committee member Barbara Pipkin on Friday, after receiving a letter from the health department's executive director, Dr. David N. Sundwall, outlining the department's "action steps" in the upcoming months. "We're unbelievably excited."

Pipkin said she first realized that the reporting of Monticello cancer cases was "haphazard at best" when she saw a classified list of names from the tumor registry and realized many names weren't on it, including those of her father-in-law and an uncle, both diagnosed after 1973. Both men worked at the mill.

In a press release Friday, Sundwall said the community "needs answers, and we are committed to working with them to find those answers using the best science and resources available to us."

Monticello residents would like a federally funded treatment clinic and cancer-screening facility in Monticello, and monetary compensation for all victims — not just the miners and mill workers but the children who played in the tailings piles and the wives who washed the clothes of the men who came home covered with uranium dust. In addition to cancers, the uranium mill caused respiratory problems, the residents believe.

As for the land and buildings in the town, they were given a clean bill of health following the U.S. Department of Energy's Superfund Site cleanup, which was completed in 2000.

E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com