MONTICELLO, San Juan County — Bruce Adams and his junior high friends grew up in the dust of this small town in the 1950s and early 1960s, chasing their boredom away by jumping atop sheep or pigs at the local slaughterhouse.
Afterward, in the hot sun, they'd slip into the tailings pond next to the uranium mill to wash away the grime.
People gave it no thought to take the mill tailings and use them as fill, for mortar in home construction, to patch roads or put it in children's sandboxes.
"We had no idea we were putting a stake in our own heart," Adams says now.
A few years into high school, Adams' best friend, Alan Maughan, died of leukemia. That was in 1966, and 33 years before the federal government came in and declared the area so contaminated it put it on the Superfund list.
Today, mill-era residents, both those who stayed in town and those who moved away, continue to come down with cancer and are buried from cancer, often in the same dirt they suspect made them sick so many decades ago.
"These people aren't getting much help," said Sen. David Hinkins, R-Ferron. "What we are doing is putting the federal government on notice that we'd like something to be done to help these people out."
Hinkins has a resolution that will be heard in the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee meeting at 4 p.m. Monday at Capitol Hill.
The measure, SCR10, urges the federal government to take action to loosen up dollars for cancer screening, education and treatment services to victims of mill tailings exposure from the Monticello mill.
“There was a lot of exposure to people down there,” said Hinkins, who has San Juan County in his district.
A few years back, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was able to get a measure passed in Congress that provided $210,000 in cancer screening and treatment for residents exposed to radioactivity as well as heavy metals such as arsenic and selenium.
Those screening services, according to Hinkins, resulted in the diagnosis of 39 new cases of cancer and 32 more cases of precancerous polyps.
Adams, chairman of the San Juan County Commission, said that money has since been tapped out, easily consumed by trips residents often have to make to Salt Lake City for services provided by the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
“There’s no more vouchers for cancer screening, but the problem has not gone away.”
Milling of uranium and vanadium ore began in 1941 in Monticello in an effort that was part of the Manhattan project. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy, purchased the mill in 1948. By 1971, 11 years after the mill stopped operating, the federal government was conducting radiological surveys to determine the nature and extent of the contamination associated with mill tailings.
Aside from the actual mill site, the Environmental Protection Agency found 424 contaminated vicinity properties in the residential and commercial areas of Monticello, as well as 34 contaminated properties on rural land downstream from the mill.
An on-site repository constructed under the purview of the EPA holds more than 2.5 million cubic yards of contaminated material.
State water officials continue to have restrictions on the withdrawal of any groundwater in the area because it is not safe to drink.
In 2000, the federal government transferred 383 acres to Monticello, land that includes the mill site and adjacent properties. It sits as open space, reseeded and planted with trees, but no buildings can be put on the land and it is restricted to day use.
A group that has emerged, the Monticello Victims of Mill Tailings Exposure, said it has documented about 700 cases of cancer from those exposed to the legacy of the mill born during the “atomic stampede.”
The group’s rallying cry includes the call of “supporting the fighters, admiring the survivors and honoring the taken.”10 comments on this story
Over the years, memorials and candlelight vigils have been held on the property in remembrance of the lives lost and the suffering residents fear is yet to come.
Hinkins’ resolution asks for the federal government to kick in money for those victims until 2044 — the year the community thinks everyone who was exposed will no longer be alive.
“The government came in and cleaned up all the properties, but they never addressed the exposure of the humans who lived here,” Adams said. “They need to take some responsibility for the human health disaster that happened here.”