Uranium Milling and the Church Rock Disaster
Church Rock, New Mexico, would seem an improbable spot for a nuclear disaster. A dusty cluster of industrial machinery set in the arid mesas of the great Southwest, its most distinguishing feature might be considered a large pond of murky liquid, unusual in such dry terrain. Church Rock also hosts a series of underground uranium mine shafts, a mill, and a scattered community of Navajo families who survive by herding cattle, goats, and sheep. A deep gully leads from the mine site into the Rio Puerco, which once flowed only when fed by spring rains. Now it is wet year round, bolstered by water pumped from the mine shafts to keep them from flooding. That water flowing from the mine is laced with radioactive isotopes. And the pond hides a burden of contaminated waste.
The 350 families who water livestock in the Rio Puerco rely on their small herds to eke out a meager existence. Many are members of the Dine–Navajo–Nation, with incomes in the range of two thousand dollars per year. During the hot days of the desert summer local children would play in the stream as their parents tended the goats, sheep, and cattle.
A Wall of Radioactive Water In the early morning hours of July 16, 1979–fourteen weeks after the accident at Three Mile Island–all of that changed. The dam at Church Rock burst sending eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid pouring toward Arizona. The wall of water backed up sewers and lifted manhole covers in Gallup, twenty miles downstream, and caught people all along the river unawares. “There were no clouds, but all of a sudden the water came,” remembered Herbert Morgan of Manuelito, New Mexico. “I was wondering where it came from. Not for a few days were we told.”
No one was killed in the actual flood. But along the way it left residues of radioactive uranium, thorium, radium, and polonium, as well as traces of metals such as cadmium, aluminum, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, sodium, vanadium, zinc, iron, lead and high concentrations of sulfates. The spill degraded the western Rio Puerco as a water source. It carried toxic metals already detectable at least seventy miles downstream. And it raised the specter that uranium mining in the Colorado River Basin may be endangering Arizona’s Lake Mead, and with it the drinking water of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and much of Arizona.
Except for the bomb tests, Church Rock was probably the biggest single release of radioactive poisons on American soil. Ironically it occurred thirty-four years to the day after the first atomic test explosion at Trinity, New Mexico, not far away.
The source of the catastrophe was uranium mill wastes. Usable uranium is extracted from the sandstone in which it is usually found by grinding it fine and leaching it with sulfuric acid. The acid carries off the desired isotopes. But the leftover waste sands–“tailings”–still contain 85 percent of the ore’s original radioactivity, and 99.9 percent of its original volume. There are now some 140 million tons of them scattered around the West. NRC commissioner Victor Gilinsky and others consider them “the dominant contribution to radiation exposure” of the entire nuclear fuel cycle. The acid milling liquids–called “liquor”–also dissolve dangerous traces of thorium 230, radium 222, lead 210, and other isotopes. Because of their high radioactivity the tailings and liquor both must be isolated from the environment–but nobody has yet demonstrated a method with any long-term success.
At Church Rock several hundred million gallons of the liquor were being held in a large pond so the liquids could evaporate off and the solid tailings be stored. The whole complex was owned by the United Nuclear Corporation (UNC), a Virginia-based firm with assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars and influence in the New Mexico state government. Its dam and pond at Church Rock were opened with the understanding that they would operate just eighteen months; twenty-five months later, at the time of the accident, no alternative sites were being developed.
The UNC dam wall was an earthen structure with a clay core, twenty-five feet high and thirty feet wide. On the morning of the accident a twenty-foot-wide section of it gave way, wreaking havoc downstream. In the desert, water is synonymous with life. In contaminating the Rio Puerco, UNC had threatened the basis of existence for all of the people who lived downstream. For the first time they confronted the terrors of radioactivity. “Our hearts have been broken,” said Bodie McCray of Tsayotah. “We don’t sleep worrying about it. I worry about our children and their children.”
Indeed the hundreds of families living near the spill now had to live with the same kinds of uncertainties just beginning to plague the people of central Pennsylvania. “Ever since the accident we’ve been wanting the truth,” said Kee Bennally, a silversmith playing a lead role in the multimillion-dollar lawsuit against UNC. “They say it’s not dangerous and in a couple of days they say it is dangerous. It’s been really confusing, especially for the old people. They don’t know anything about this, the contamination, the radiation. . . .”
What made the Church Rock disaster especially tragic was that it could have been avoided. Soon after the spill an angry U.S. representative Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) told a congressional hearing that “at least three and possibly more Federal and state regulatory agencies had ample opportunity to conclude that such an accident was likely to occur.” Even before the dam had been licensed “the company’s own consultant predicted that the soil under this dam was susceptible to extreme settling which was likely to cause [its] cracking and subsequent failure.”
Cracks had developed in the dam the year it opened, said Udall. Aerial photographs revealed that liquor, which was supposed to be kept away from the dam face, was lapping against it. State-required seepage devices and monitoring wells had never been built or inspected for.
UNC’s chief operating officer, J. David Hann, countered Udall by blaming the accident on “a unique rock point, beneath the breach.” Because the dam had been built partly on bedrock and partly on softer ground, that rock point “served as a fulcrum, resulting in transverse cracking.” The breach was “like many things you undertake,” Hann told the congressional hearing. “They have a risk, and we undertook this. There was a circumstance that was not foreseen at the time.”
But coming in the wake of Three Mile Island, and in light of considerable evidence of impending disaster, Hann’s arguments seemed to carry little weight. In a special report the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers charged that if the dam had been built to legal specifications, according to approved design, “it is possible that the failure would not have occurred.” And a spokesman from the New Mexico State Engineer’s Office added that a “consensus” of engineers who reviewed the accident agreed that “had the drain zone been constructed according to the approved plans and specifications, and had the tailings beach been in place as recommended by [UNC’s] engineers, it is likely that failure would not have occurred.”
At the time of the disaster the dam was carrying a load of tailings liquor at least two feet higher than allowed for in its designs. The company had also failed to tell the state that cracking had been observed. “There were significant warnings appearing before the dam broke,” said William Dircks, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards. “I think that is the troubling part of it.”
Ultimately, for the company, the accident would mean a loss of some revenue and bad publicity. For the people downstream life itself was at stake. “Somehow,” complained Frank Paul, vice-president of the Navajo Tribal Council, “United Nuclear Corporation was permitted to locate a tailings pond and a dam on an unstable geologic formation. Somehow UNC was allowed to design an unsafe tailings dam not in conformance to its own design criteria. Somehow UNC was permitted to inadequately deal with warning cracks that had appeared over two years prior to the date the dam failed. Somehow UNC was permitted to continue a temporary dam for six months beyond its design life. Somehow UNC was permitted to have a tailings dam without either an adequate contingency plan or sufficient men and material in place to deal with a spill. Somehow UNC was permitted to deal with the spill by doing almost nothing.”
Ironically the Church Rock dam was a “state-of-the-art” structure. Paul Robinson, an Albuquerque-based expert on mining issues, warned the Udall hearings that “UNC-Church Rock was the most recently built and the most carefully engineered tailings dam in the state.” Similar dams owned by Anaconda, Kerr-McGee, UNC-Homestake Partners, and Sohio were “disasters waiting to happen.”
1. Kathie Saltzstein, “Navajos Ask $12.5 Million in UNC Suits,” Gallup Independent, August 14, 1980 (hereafter cited as “Navajos”); for a general analysis of the relationship between Indians and uranium development, see Joseph G. Jorgenson, et al., “Native Americans and Energy Development” (Cambridge, Ma.: Anthropology Resources Center, 1978); for a broad range of information on the issue of uranium mining and milling, contact the Black Hills Alliance, Box 2508, Rapid City, SD 57709. 2. Edwin K. Swanson, “Water Quality Problems in the Puerco River,” paper presented at the American Water Resources Association Symposium, Water Quality Monitoring and Management, Tucson, Arizona, October 24, 1980.
3. Edwin K. Swanson, interview, May 1981.
4. Victor Gilinsky, “The Problem of Uranium Mill Tailings,” paper presented at the Pacific Southwest Minerals and Energy Conference, Anaheim, California, May 2, 1978 (Washington, D.C.: NRC Office of Public Affairs), No. S-78-3, p. 3 (hereafter cited as “Problem”). See also, EPA, Environmental Analysis of the Uranium Fuel Cycle, Part I–Fuel Supply, EPA-520/9-73-003-B, Washington, D.C: EPA Office of Radiation Programs, 1973, p. 26.
5. Chris Shuey, “Calamity at Church Rock, New Mexico,” Saturday Magazine, Scottsdale Daily Progress, Part 1, February 14, 1981, p. 3 (hereafter cited as “Calamity”).
6. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, Mill Tailings Dam Break at Church Rock, New Mexico, 96th Congress, October 22, 1979, pp. 1-4 (hereafter cited as Church Rock Hearings).
8. Ibid., p. 120.
9. Ibid., p. 3.
10. Ibid., p. 42.
11. Ibid., p. 39.
12. Ibid., p. 8.
13. Ibid., pp. 225-232.
Thorium and Other Damage Soon after the spill UNC sent small crews downstream with shovels and fifty-five-gallon drums to begin cleaning up. Bitter complaints from local residents and the state soon forced UNC to expand its crews to thirty to thirty-five workers. “We have removed more than 3500 tons of potentially affected sediment from the streambed to a distance of more than 10 miles from the mill,” Hann told the Udall hearings. “The combination of these clean-up efforts, and natural effects, such as rain, have largely restored normal conditions in the area.”
But an Arizona water-quality official complained in an interview with us that the rains had merely transported the pollutants into his state. And Robinson pointed out that UNC had in fact removed just 1 percent of the tailings and liquid known to have spilled from the dam. More than eighteen months after the accident indications were strong that radiation and other pollutants had penetrated thirty feet into the earth. A report by a Cincinnati-based firm brought in as a consultant by the EPA warned that at least two nearby aquifers had been put “at risk.”
Furthermore when the spill overflowed the banks of the Rio Puerco, it left behind a series of pools. When ordered by the state to monitor them, UNC chose to look for their uranium content.
But uranium was precisely what the company had been working to remove in the milling process. “It was a subterfuge on the company’s part,” said Dr. Jorge Winterer, an M.D. working with the Indian Health Service in Gallup at the time of the spill. “There were children up and down the river playing in those stagnant pools, and they were deadly poisonous. But UNC chose to monitor them for the element they knew was least likely to be there.”
In fact the NRC’s William Dircks told the Udall hearing that those pools showed levels of radiation one hundred to five hundred times natural background. What UNC might have missed were substantial quantities of thorium 230 and radium 226. Both are alpha-emitters and are extremely dangerous if ingested or inhaled.
Thorium 230, for example, has a half-life of eighty thousand years and is believed by some to be as toxic as plutonium. A silver-white metal, thorium tends to deposit in the liver, bone marrow, and lymphatic tissue, where even minute quantities can cause cancer and leukemia. If inhaled as dust it can cause lung cancer. According to a study by Winterer, under some circumstances thorium can become “trapped” in the body, making it “a permanent source of radiation” there, and thus doing untold damage to the human organism.
Winterer soon came under personal attack in the wake of his candid comments. UNC was a power in state politics. It had twenty-three hundred employees and an annual budget within New Mexico of $140 million. When Winterer contradicted assertions from his superiors that there were no health effects from the spill, he was threatened with legal action. And when he began holding seminars in the local library on the dangers of radiation, Winterer was told by a former friend that he and his family “would be a lot better off if we got out of New Mexico right away.”
Jorge Winterer was not the only one concerned about UNC’s assessment of the spill. Dr. Thomas Gesell, a health physics professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, and a staff member of the Presidential Kemeny Commission on the effects of the accident at Three Mile Island, also testified at the Udall hearings. Gesell said UNC’s monitoring data were self-contradictory and out-of-phase with the state’s. One UNC report had listed background levels as being lower after the spill than before it. Some company reports on downstream radiation levels claimed findings 150 times lower than the state’s.
Meanwhile contamination had apparently spread to local animals. One veterinarian told a documentary crew from Eleventh Hour Films that abnormal radiation levels had been found in the tissues of goats and sheep that were drinking Rio Puerco water. A study of eleven animals by the Center for Disease Control confirmed the problem. The CDC warned that kidneys and livers of local livestock might concentrate high doses and should not be eaten.
The CDC also warned locals not to drink water from the river, and to avoid its banks during windstorms, when radioactive particles might be more easily inhaled. The CDC emphasized that radiation levels in local animals did not exceed New Mexico standards. But it was important to exercise caution because “the health risks of low doses of radiation” were “not completely understood.”
A year after the spill Cubia Clayton of the state’s Environmental Improvement Division confirmed that the Rio Puerco was still too dangerous for human or animal consumption. Clayton stated that it was “obvious” that “there has been some buildup of radiation” in some of the animals tested.
Ironically some of those animals had drunk upstream of the spill, indicating the stream–fed by water pumped out of the uranium mines–may well have been contaminated even before the accident.
Soon after the dam break, two West German radiation biologists, Bernd Franke and Barbara Steinhilber-Schwab, sharply criticized the CDC report for downplaying the potential dangers of the accident and for sampling too few of the local livestock. They urged chromosome checks on area residents and called for the establishment of cancer and birth registries as well as intense ongoing radiation monitoring in the area. They also warned that thorium and other isotopes from the spill could enter the human body not only through eating contaminated animals, but also when radioactive dust settled on vegetables.
Dr. Carl Johnson, director of Colorado’s Jefferson County Health Department, further warned that detectable radiation levels in the tissues of children might only surface “over a period of many years.” Dangerous levels of thorium, radium, and other isotopes could build up through the ingestion of contaminated food, air, and water. Thus he too urged careful monitoring of local children, plus a shutdown of the mines and mills until the public had determined that “a satisfactory method for preventing a subsequent incident” had been found.
But the UNC mine and mill were back in operation in less than five months. The same pond was in use. Some changes were made in the dam, but constant seepage–up to eighty thousand gallons of contaminated liquid per day–had become a mainstay.
UNC had promised to provide local residents and their animals with clean drinking water. But an Arizona newspaper confirmed that the company was delivering just half the promised amounts. A request by some of the downstream residents for emergency food stamps to replace their lost livestock was denied by the government.
And at least one family was forced to eat a sheep known to have ingested radioactive residues. “If you come to Lupton, you will see a lot of shepherds running along the side of the wash trying to keep the sheep out,” said Navajo shepherd Tom Charlie.
The UNC had put up signs saying “contaminated wash, keep out. But our cows, sheep and horses can’t read that. Most of us can’t read, write or speak English. The signs do no good. If [neighbors] know we are from the Rio Puerco wash, they won’t shake our hands,” he added. “They think we have a high level of radiation. They ran from me. They are afraid of us. That’s why people look at us, that’s why no one comes to help us. It is wet now, but on days when it dries up, the wind will come along. The dust settles on the grass. The sheep eat it. We eat the sheep. We wonder what that does to our lives.”
14. Ibid., pp. 120-121. 15. Swanson interview.
16. Paul Robinson, interview, February 1981; and Shuey, “Calamity,” Part 2, February 21, 1981, p. 5.
17. Jorge Winterer, interview, October 1980.
18. Jorge Winterer, Potential Health Impact of United Nuclear-Church Rock Spill (Gallup, N.M.: Physicians for Social Responsibility: fall 1979).
19. Church Rock Hearings, pp. 9-11.
20. Winterer interview.
21. Church Rock Hearings, pp. 9-11.
22. Allan Shauffler, interviewed for In Our Own Back Yard.
23. Albuquerque Journal, July 17, 1980.
24. Gallup Independent, June 16, 1980.
25. Bernd Franke and Barbara Steinhilber-Schwab, press statement, Albuquerque International Airport, Albuquerque, N.M., July 24, 1980. The question of contamination in local humans did come up when seven local residents were sent to Los Alamos for testing. Seven months later reports indicated no contamination. But it was soon discovered that the equipment used to measure the radiation levels was not capable of recording small doses–doses that were nonetheless large enough to do harm. See Shuey, “Calamity,” Part 2, pp. 5-6.
26. Carl Johnson, letter to Lynda Taylor, July 14, 1980.
27. Robinson interview.
28. Shuey, “Calamity,” Part 2, p. 6.
29. Saltzstein, “Navajos.” In a July 1981 letter to authors, Edwin Swanson said the state of Arizona asked UNC to post signs along the river as far as Navajo, Arizona, but that the company did not do it.
Tailings Forever Church Rock was the biggest tailings spill on record, but it was not the only one. And though the Navajo and other New Mexicans nearby were the most directly affected, people as far away as Los Angeles had cause for concern.
As Congressman Udall put it, Church Rock fit a pattern of “sloppy and haphazard” handling of mill tailings throughout the nation. Other spills, he said, had dumped “millions of gallons of hazardous liquids” and jeopardized the water supply of much of the West. In fact NRC statistics acknowledged at least fifteen accidental releases of tailings solution from 1959 to 1977, including seven dam breaks, six pipeline failures, and two floods. In at least ten of the events radioactivity reached a major watercourse. One accident cited by Udall sent twenty-five thousand gallons of slurry directly into the Colorado River. A flood washed some fourteen thousand tons of tailings directly into Utah’s Green River.
At Durango, Colorado, a huge hundred-foot-high tailings pile sits just sixty feet from the Animas River, a tributary of the Colorado. The state Department of Health has found abnormal radium levels in water thirty miles downstream. According to Washington-based uranium expert David Berick operators of the Durango mill “just took the residues and threw them in the river. There’s really no way of knowing how much of it went how far downstream.”
Because the milling process renders many of the isotopes in the tailings highly soluble, they can be washed into streams and water tables by rain. A 1979 Oak Ridge National Laboratory study noted groundwater contamination at two New Mexico tailings piles. Company records admit to severe groundwater contamination at Colorado’s Uravan mill. One tailings dam near Wyoming’s Sweetwater River failed six times between 1957 and 1979 and was reporting a daily seepage rate of 1.7 million gallons. And a major 1976 EPA study indicated that some 200,000 kilograms of dissolved uranium had been introduced to subsurface water by seepage and “direct injection” at mills belonging to Anaconda and Kerr-McGee. The study warned the problem was widespread: “The stark contrast between a typical 20-year mill life and an 80,000-year half life for the dominant radionuclide (thorium 230) necessitates a much greater forward look than is now evident in waste disposal practices and preservation of ground-water quality.”
Nor has the problem stayed underground. As early as 1964 the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration told a congressional hearing that fish caught downriver from the Naturita and Uravan uranium mills showed higher radium concentrations than those caught upriver. Downriver hay samples also showed contamination, as did cows’ milk. “In this case,” said the authorities, “the prime source of radium intake for the cows is believed to be from eating hay irrigated with contaminated river water.”
As for Church Rock, Edwin Swanson, a water-quality expert for the state of Arizona, told us traces of the spill–though dilute and possibly undetectable–would eventually reach Arizona’s Lake Mead, 470 miles downstream.
And though most of America’s uranium mills seem far removed from major population centers, concern is growing for such crucial water sources as Lake Mead, which supplies southern California, Las Vegas, and parts of Arizona with much of their drinking water.
The huge reservoir sits downstream from numerous uranium mining and milling operations. The distances are sometimes great, but so are the half-lives of many of the isotopes slowly making their way downriver. As early as 1972, H. Peter Metzger, writing in The Atomic Establishment, warned that bottom sediments in Lake Mead were showing three times the concentration of radium as similar sediment samples taken upstream of the uranium mills.
The implications of a contaminated Lake Mead, and of a radioactive western water system, are catastrophic. But the uranium problem involves an immense volume of tailings and is not limited just to water quality.
According to the Government Accounting Office (GAO) at least twenty-two uranium mills had shut down on the continental United States by 1978. They left behind some twenty-five million tons of tailings in “unattended piles and ponds” in eight western states plus Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Another sixteen mills were in operation, with an additional 115 million tons on site–bringing the total to 140 million tons. In the early 1980s another six to ten million tons of tailings were being produced per year. Based on high growth estimates, the NRC in 1981 predicted another 109 mills could be operating by the year 2000 producing 470 million more tons of tailings and scores of acid ponds like the one at Church Rock. One estimate from Los Alamos Laboratory put the total far higher, predicting 900 million tons of tailings by the year 2000 in New Mexico alone. Such a total would involve some twenty trillion cubic feet of tailings.
And the piles threaten air as well as water, a problem considered by many experts–including NRC Commissioner Gilinsky–even more serious than the better-known “high-level” wastes from reactors and bomb factories. The reason is radon gas, the same deadly substance that has caused a five-fold increase in lung cancer among uranium miners. Because radon is a gas, it is possible, as Gilinsky said, “for large populations thousands of miles away from the source to be exposed, albeit to an extremely low dose.”
In fact the NRC has attempted to present long-term calculations for New Mexico tailings-gas emission levels in such distant locations as Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York City. NRC staff member Reginald Gotchy told us that despite its short half-life (3.8 days) radon gas from a tailings pile in New Mexico can carry to the East Coast of the United States. On its way contamination would appear “on grain grown in the Midwest” and elsewhere. “This stuff,” he said, “goes everywhere.” Gotchy hastened to add that he and the NRC consider the doses “minuscule.”
But in 1977 Dr. Chauncy Kepford, a chemist based in State College, Pennsylvania, testified during hearings on the license for Three Mile Island Unit 2 (which caused the 1979 accident) that the quantity and health effects of radon tailings emissions had been vastly underestimated. Kepford stated that the NRC had failed to account for continued emissions over the full decay chains of the elements involved. Assuming a stable human population and society, he estimated that tailings from the fuel needed to operate TMI-2 for just one year could cause a million cancer cases over time.
In 1978 Dr. William Lochstet of Pennsylvania State University argued that the operation of a single uranium mine could result in 8.5 million deaths over time. And Dr. Robert O. Pohl of Cornell told the NRC that the potential health effects from mill tailings could “completely dwarf” those from the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle and add significantly to the worldwide toll of death and mutations.
The essence of those conclusions was substantiated, surprisingly, from within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself. In the fall of 1977 Dr. Walter H. Jordan of the commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board wrote an internal memorandum arguing that the NRC “had underestimated radon emissions from tailings piles by a factor of 100,000.”
Because of the long half-lives of the isotopes in the solid tailings, radiation will continue to be emitted from the tailings piles for billions of years. Said Jordan: “It is very difficult to argue that deaths to future generations are unimportant.”
In estimating the long-term effects of radon gases, the NRC assumed the tailings piles would be covered with dirt. The belief is that covering the piles will trap the gas and force it–after its relatively short half-life–to deposit its radioactive “daughters” in the form of less mobile solids.
But questions have been raised about how long dirt covering the piles would last through the millennia the tailings will be radioactive. Or if the piles can actually be covered at all. In some instances they are a hundred feet high and more, and cover hundreds of acres of ground. Huge strip-mining operations would be required just to get enough soil to do the job.
The NRC has also considered returning the tailings to the mines from which they came. In some instances the procedure may be viable. But many workers would be contaminated in the process, and much fuel consumed. One estimate for removing the Durango tailings involves 65,860 trips with twenty-five-ton dump trucks. Returning the 140 million tons of tailings now lying around the U.S. would require more than 5.5 million such truck trips.
In the meantime NRC Commissioner Gilinsky has warned that “none of the abandoned sites can be considered to be in satisfactory condition from the long-term standpoint.” In fact most of the piles continue to lie exposed to the winds and rain. Residents of Durango, Colorado, have experienced plumes of dust towering thousands of feet in the air, covering cars and houses with radioactive dust. Children have played in the “dunes.” The piles were “the biggest, best sandpile in the world,” Greta Highland of Durango told the High Country News. “After school my friends would sneak into the mill yard and play in the tailings.”
But the consequences may be lethal. High levels of background radiation from thorium, for example, have been linked to spontaneous abortion and mental retardation. Leukemia and lung-cancer rates in south Durango, near the piles, have been reported higher than the rest of the town and the state.
And Monticello, Utah (population: 1900), has also reported problems. From 1949 to 1960 the town hosted a large uranium mill, which processed weapons material for the AEC. In the mid-1960s four young residents died of leukemia. A fifth began a long battle against it. In a normal town Monticello’s size just one case would be expected every twenty-five years.
A preliminary study by the Center for Disease Control concluded that “there appears to be no relationship” between the mill and the leukemias. But the authors conceded that such a high leukemia incidence “would be expected to occur in fewer than one of 1,000 towns this size or smaller during the same period of time.” The report also said that gamma readings at the perimeter of the tailings areas “ranged up to twenty times background” and that “a nuisance and possibly a hazard also existed due to blowing of the tailings as they dried out.” All five of the young victims had grown up within a half mile of the mill. “For a place this small, it had to be something,” said Dale Maughan, whose son Alan died of leukemia in 1966, at age sixteen.
The damage has not been limited to humans. Farmers near the Cotter mill at Canon City, Colorado, have also complained of unexplained problems with their animals, problems reminiscent of those reported by Lloyd Mixon at Rocky Flats. Local residents Clarence Ransome and Wanda Bosco told us the illnesses among their livestock included diarrhea, weight loss, hair falling out, and difficulties in reproduction. Tests discovered contamination in at least one local well and in alfalfa being raised nearby. Bosco told us the problems with her animals disappeared when they were given uncontaminated water trucked in from town.
The presence of uranium mining and milling has also been linked to high birth-defect rates in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. Overall conclusions are tenuous, complicated by a wide range of social and environmental factors. But Dr. Alan Goodman, director of Program Development for the Area Health Education Center at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine, has cited “a disturbing pattern” of sex ratio changes and birth defects that correspond to “the same patterns of uranium mining and milling on the Colorado Plateau. I’m not saying that they are caused by uranium, but one would have to be a fool not to see that there is a possibility that they are related.”
Particular attention has been focused on the twenty-thousand-person community of Shiprock, New Mexico, where an abandoned 1.7-million-ton tailings pile covers seventy-two acres in the heart of town. According to Dr. Leon Gottleib, a pulmonary specialist long associated with the Indian Health Service, during the rainy season, water leaching through the tailings pile carries radioactive particles into the nearby San Juan River. “Children swim in the contaminated river; cattle drink from the river; and contaminated fish inhabit these waters,” he told us in a letter. In windstorms, radioactive particles are blown into school and residential areas, as well as onto grazing and garden land.
In January 1981 Dr. Evelyn Odin, a Shiprock pediatrician, told The Albuquerque Tribune that she had been disturbed by the number of babies being born prematurely with small heads. One child, she said, was born with its esophagus and trachea joined together; another was born without an abdominal wall and with its intestines hanging out.
Dr. John Ogle, also of Shiprock, hesitated to blame the defects on radiation. But he told the Tribune that “my gut feeling is that the incidence here is too high.” Ogle said in six months he had seen three infants born with heart diseases two with cleft lips and palates, two with skull defects, two with Down’s syndrome one with a section of backbone missing, and several with thyroid conditions. A study by Sarah Harvey, director of the Community Health Representative Program, found a doubling of spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and congenital abnormalities among children of uranium-mining families as opposed to nonminers. Her survey has formed the basis for an investigation of the area partially funded by the March of Dimes.
Problems in the Shiprock area may be compounded by the fact that numerous local residents have built their homes with radioactive rock from the mines, or with tailings from the mills. The use of tailings as a building material was widespread throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Despite repeated warnings from independent experts, the AEC did not investigate the possibility that such use of tailings could harm people.
The carelessness has had a direct cost. In Grand Junction, Colorado, more than six thousand structures–including several schools–are now known to have tailings deposits in the building materials or in the landfill under them. Streets and sidewalks were also laid with them. In all at least 270,000 tons of tailings were used, resulting in dangerous radiation levels in many Grand Junction houses. A state- and federal-funded program that has thus far cost taxpayers at least $6.5 million has brought “remedial action” to only seven hundred sites. Costs have been estimated at fifteen thousand dollars per home and seventy-five thousand dollars per commercial building.
For some the cleanup may have come late. A 1978 study by the state of Colorado indicated cancer rates in Mesa County, where Grand Junction is the prime population center, showed an acute leukemia rate twice the state average. More women were suffering from the disease than men, an indication of radiation poisoning.
At Edgemont, South Dakota, an EPA study found sixty-four “hot spots” related to a nearby tailings pile. In 1978 the Neil Brafford family was forced to abandon their home there when they learned it had been built on tailings. The basement in which their young son Chris lived showed radiation levels thirty-nine times normal background. Brafford had bought the house from a mill worker and only later discovered tailings had been used as backfill. “We don’t know how much he used,” Brafford explained, “but we do know that we’re never going to live here again.”
When they moved out, Brafford’s young daughter stopped suffering from a long bout of diarrhea, which had begun when the family moved in. Laboratory tests showed that young Chris Brafford had broken chromosomes. He was also suffering from aching bones, a symptom of potential leukemia. In May of 1981 the Braffords filed a forty-million-dollar lawsuit against the Susquehanna Corporation, owners of the nearby tailings pile.
30. Church Rock Hearings, p. 1. 31. Ibid., p. 9.
32. William Sweet, “Unresolved: The Front End of Nuclear Waste Disposal,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1979, p. 45
33. Jack Miller, “Environmental and Health Effects,” Uranium Information Network, unpublished. For this finding Miller cites the Colorado Department of Health, Uranium Wastes and Colorado’s Environment, second edition (Denver: Colorado Department of Health, August 1971 ), p. 10.
34. David Berick, interview, March 1981.
35. D. G. Jacobs and H. W. Dickson, A Description of Radiological Problems at Inactive Uranium Mill Sites and Formerly Utilized MED/AEC Sites (Oak Ridge, Tenn.: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, February 1979), p. 5.
36. High Country News, February 22, 1980, p. 1.
37. Ibid., December 14, 1979, p. 10.
38. Robert F. Kaufman, et al., “Effects of Uranium Mining and Milling on Ground Water in the Grants Mineral Belt, New Mexico,” Ground Water 14, No. 5 (September-October 1976). See also, EPA Radioactivity in Drinking Water, EPA #570/9-81-002 (Washington, D.C.: EPA, January 1981).
39. U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Public Works, Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution, Radioactive Water Pollution in the Colorado River Basin, 89th Congress, May 6, 1966, pp. 101-104.
40. Swanson interview.
41. Metzger, Atomic Establishment, p. 164. For this information Metzger cites: DHEW, U.S. PHS, Waste Guide for the Uranium Milling Industry, Technical Report W62-12 (Cincinnati: PHS, 1962); PHS, Region VIII, Radiological Content of Colorado River Basin Bottom Sedimentation, Report PR-10 (Denver: PHS, June 1963); and Radioactivity in Water and Sediments of the Colorado River Basin, 1950-1963, Radiological Health Data and Reports (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, November 1964).
42. GAO, The Uranium Mill Tailings Cleanup: Federal Leadership At Last?, EMD-78-90, (Washington, D.C.: GAO, June 1978) (hereafter cited as Tailings Leadership); and, NRC, Final General Environmental Impact Statement on Uranium Milling, Vol 1, NUREG-0706 (Washington, D.C.: NRC Office of Material Safety and Safeguards, September 1980), pp. 3-15 (hereafter cited as GEIS-Milling). See also, GAO, The U.S. Mining and Mineral-Processing Industry: An Analysis of Trends and Implications, ID-80-04 (Washington, D.C.: GAO, October 1979).
43. David R. Dreesen, Uranium Mill Tailings: Environmental Implications, LASL 77-37 (Los Alamos, N.M.: Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, February 1978).
44. Gilinsky, “Problem,” p. 2.
45. NRC, Radon Releases from Uranium Mining and Milling and Their Calculated Health Effects, NUREG-0757 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Material Safety and Safeguards, February 1981), p. 7-3 (hereafter cited as Radon 0757).
46. Reginald Gotchy, interview, April 1981.
47. Chauncy Kepford, Comments on NUREG-00332 (State College, Pa.: Environmental Coalition on Nuclear Power, 1977), p. 8; and Chauncy Kepford, interview, June 1981.
48. William Lochstet, “Radiological Impact of the Proposed Crownpoint Uranium Mining Project,” August 1978, unpublished manuscript.
49. Robert O. Pohl, “In the Matter of Public Service Company of Oklahoma, Associated Electric Coop., Inc. and Western Farmers Coop., Inc. (Black Fox Station Units 1 and 2,” testimony before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, Docket Nos. STN 50-556 and STN 50-557.
50. Walter Jordan, “Errors in 10 CFR Section 51.20, Table S-3,” memorandum to James R. Yore, NRC, September 21, 1977; and Walter Jordan, letter to Congressman Clifford Allen, December 9, 1977.
51. NRC, Radon 0757, p. 4-7.
52. High Country News, May 16, 1980, p. 6.
53. Gilinsky, “Problem,” p. 5.
54. High Country News, May 16, 1980, p. 6.
55. N. Kochupillai, et al., “Down’s Syndrome and Related Abnormalities in an Area of High Background Radiation in Coastal Kerala,” Nature 262 (July 1, 1976): 60-61.
56. High Country News, May 16, 1980, p. 6.
57. Peter McPhedran and John R. Crowell, “Leukemia in Monticello, Utah,” EPI-67-48-2, Memorandum to the Director, National Communicable Disease Center, Atlanta, July 5, 1967. See also, John R. Crowell and Clark W. Heath, Jr., “Leukemia in Parowan and Paragonah, Utah,” EPI-67-70-2, memorandum to the Director, National Communicable Disease Center, Atlanta, April 26, 1967. In a June 1981 interview, Peter McPhedran told us a more detailed study of Monticello “looked like a good idea, but nobody asked us to pursue it any further.” As a result, he said, the study was dropped. Area drinking water had not been studied.
58. Bill Curry, “Small Utah Town, 4 Leukemia Deaths,” Washington Post, July 16, 1978. In a March 1981 interview Alan Maughan’s mother told us she was certain the tailings piles had caused her son’s death. Dr. Carroll Goon, whom we also interviewed, said the large number of leukemia cases surfacing at the same time did seem extraordinary, but that there was no conclusive proof they had been caused by the tailings. There has been, he said, “nothing like it since” in Monticello.
59. “Bad Water Tough on Families,” Rocky Mountain News, June 26, 1978, p. 8; and Clarence Ransome and Wanda Bosco, interviews, June 1981.
60. Christopher McLeod, “Uranium Link: New Studies Reveal High Birth Defect Rate in Southwest,” Pacific News Service, April 1, 1981.
61. Burt Hubbard, “Navajos Build Radioactive Homes; Offspring May be Bearing Burden,” Albuquerque Tribune, January 27, 1981, p. A-2. The problems in Shiprock were also confirmed by Dr. Leon Gottleib, who worked in the area for many years, in an April 1981 interview and in an August 23, 1981 letter.
62. Lynda Taylor, Southwest Research Institute, interview, June 1981.
63. Metzger, Atomic Establishment, p. 164.
64. GAO, Tailings Leadership, p. 8; and GEIS-Milling, p. 2-2. See also, Joanne Omang, “EPA Proposes Rules for Cleaning Up Old Uranium Mills’ Radioactive Waste,” Washington Post, April 17, 1980.
65. “Mesa County Leukemia, Cancer Incidences High,” Rocky Mountain News, United Press International, March 2, 1978.
66. High Country News, April 4, 1980, p. 13.
67. Neil Brafford, interview, July 1980.
68. Andrew Reid, interview, March 1981. Reid is lead attorney in the Braffords’ lawsuit.
Canonsburg Ironically one of the worst tailings problems occurred in a community east of the Mississippi–Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, twenty miles southwest of Pittsburgh. As early as 1911 the Standard Chemical Company was importing carload after carload of radioactive ore from a mine at Montrose, Colorado, to extract uranium. At the time, it took about five hundred tons of ore to produce a single gram of radium–a gram that sold for up to $150,000.
There were few questions asked. In 1914 company president Joseph M. Flannery told a local newspaper that radium would cure “such things as insanity, tuberculosis, rheumatism and anemia, and a lot of cancers.” Flannery and at least two other principals in the company eventually died of radiation sickness.
Standard Chemical and the companies that followed it quit the radium business in Canonsburg in 1942. But by then the push was on to build the atomic bomb. The government contracted in secret with the Vitro Corporation to extract leftover uranium from the discarded ore.
When Vitro finished operations in the late fifties, it was ready to go into the waste-storage business. At least 160,000 tons of radioactive residues were strewn around Canonsburg, some of them lining the bottom of a three-acre lagoon where local children regularly waded in the summer and skated in the winter.
In the early sixties the AEC allowed the lagoon to be filled in with tailings. It was an extraordinary decision, since–contrary to regulations–the government did not own the site. Health physicist Robert Gallagher, who performed a preliminary survey there, called the move “incredible.” He charged that the AEC approval was either “a special favor or an oversight of gigantic magnitude.” As for the fill job, Joseph Swiger, project manager for the dumping, termed it “the worst and sloppiest job I’ve ever worked on.” It was “morally objectionable,” he told The Pittsburgh Press, “because the material was hazardous.”
In 1967 the site was sold for $130,000 to a local entrepreneur named Vaughn Crile, who was never warned that there might be a radiation problem. Crile built an industrial park on top of the tailings and brought in fourteen tenants along with his family business. The DOE surveyed the site in 1978 and found that the 125 workers there were being exposed to radon concentrations fourteen times above the level officially considered safe.
The news was not well received by Crile’s tenants. At least eight had left by early 1981. Workers were hesitant to take jobs there, and at least one claimed the place had ruined his health.
He was George Mahranus, a mechanic at the park for eight years, who finally quit in fear. “Towards the end,” he told us, “I could hardly lift anything, couldn’t pull on the wrenches. I got a soreness in my joints. Most of my hair fell out. My front teeth came loose on me. I never felt like this before in my life.” Mahranus, who was in his forties, spent most of his working days on the plant floor, fixing tires and engines. “The radiation never occurred to me till they started drilling at the site to test for it,” he said. “Then I decided to get the hell out of there.” With just ten teeth left in his mouth and an unexplained lump behind his ear, Mahranus was apprehensive of doctors confirming his worst fears. “I do feel better since I left there,” he told us. “But now I can’t sit long and my fingertips go numb on me. I always did hard work. But now there’s no way for me to go out and put in eight hours. It would kill me.”
Park owner Vaughn Crile was skeptical of Mahranus’s claims, but was also deeply bitter toward the government, which he said had cost him thousands of dollars. “They should relocate us, but they’re so ungodly slow,” he complained.
At least eighteen other radioactive “hot spots” were identified around town including a ballfield and an American Legion park. A spot near the lagoon registered five hundred times normal background levels.
Some locals complained that their gardens would not grow; others were warned not to eat the vegetables that did come up. A rain barrel at one Canonsburg home showed radiation levels eight thousand times background, while materials used to build one house registered 240 times the normal radium count. At least 150 homes were marked for decontamination.
But, as at Grand Junction, the cleanup orders may have been too late. Epidemiologist Evelyn Talbott of the University of Pittsburgh studied the area. She told us preliminary figures indicated a lung-cancer rate twice normal among men over forty-five, and three times normal among men over seventy.
Informal studies indicate things may be even worse. Agnes Engel, a mother of two in her late thirties and a lifelong resident, surveyed 150 of her neighbors. She found an astonishing fifty-three of them complaining of thyroid problems. Like scores of other local children, Engel had been drawn to the contaminated lagoon when she was young. Before it was filled in, she told us, “there were cattails and frogs there. It was an irresistible attraction.”
But there had been no warning of the radioactive chemicals at the lagoon’s bottom. Engel has since suffered from multiple health disorders including strange bleeding problems, a thyroid condition at age seventeen, a minimally brain-damaged son, a hysterectomy at thirty-five. “My two sisters have also had similar problems,” she told us. “And there are so many other women here who’ve had them . . . so many strange things. . . . “
69. Ben A. Franklin, “U.S. Testing Workers for Effects of 13 Years Amid Atomic Wastes” New York Times, May 5, 1979, p. A-1. 70. Pittsburgh Press, January 23, 1980, p. C-1.
71. Ibid., January 21, 1980, p. A-8.
72. Franklin, “U.S. Testing Workers.”
73. George Mahranus, interview, April 1981. See also, Albert Neri, “Radioactive Park Site Has Mechanic `Scared,'” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 19, 1979.
74. Vaughn Crile, interview, April 1981.
75. Pittsburgh Press, March 2, 1979, and June 22, 1980, p. A-10.
76. Evelyn Talbott, interview, October 1980. See also, Pittsburgh Press, July 30, 1980, p. B-3.
77. Agnes Engel, interview, October 1980. See also, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 19, 1979; and Agnes Engel, Residential Research Survey of Thyroid Disorders (Strabane, Pa.: U.C.A.R.E., March 21, 1979).