Uranium mining left a legacy of death

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 13 2001 12:00 a.m. MST

Tim Meier describes DOE work at the Monticello mill site.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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."

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