Families of uranium miners throughout the West who suffered a grave injustice at the hands of the federal government are to be compensated by the same bill that passed Congress to help fallout victims.
Many of an estimated 200 miners who got lung cancer by working in mines contaminated with radioactive radon gas, starting around 1948, have died. But their heirs are entitled to $100,000 compensation.The miners lived in Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado. Although they worked for private companies, the old Atomic Energy Commission had buying stations that contracted with mining companies, inspected mines, checked ore quality and gave bonuses for certain grades of uranium.
"If you step back and look at the reality of the situation, they were in complete control of the industry," said Kenley Brunsdale, a lawyer for the plaintiffs who started filing suits in Utah in 1980.
In February 1985, families of 24 of the Utah miners agreed to a partial settlement with Foote Minerals Co. of Exxon, Pa. They were paid about $1.2 million total. Foote was involved "only because it had the misfortune to merge" with the Vanadium Corp. of America, which managed the mines during the period involved, said a lawyer for the company.
The federal government remained a defendant in the suit.
Plaintiffs' lawyers say the federal government studied the miners for health effects, knew of high radon concentrations, and never warned the men.
They charged that radioactive gases built up at times to 2,750 times the federal standard, eventually causing lung cancer.
However, Department of Energy lawyer Russell Young argued that not warning the miners wasn't some negligent accident. "There was a deliberate decision not to warn based on an articulated policy," he said.
Federal lawyers won dismissal in 1985 on the grounds that suits are barred on discretionary actions by the government.
Wayne Owens - who at the time was a lawyer for the miners' families - was dismayed that "the government . . . knowingly sent those miners to their deaths (and) is not held to account."
Although the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court, Appeals Judge Monroe G. McKay referred to "the horrendous decision to . . . make guinea pigs of the people in this country."
But federal lawyer John P. Schnitker said evidence of a link between uranium mining and health hazards had not been documented at that time. "At the time, the research wasn't there," he said.
In October 1987, the Supreme Court upheld the appeals court without comment.
"The courts have construed that exclusion (barring suits) far beyond what Congress intended or justice required," said Owens, by then back in Congress.
Three years later, he and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, mustered enough votes in Congress to do what the courts could not. Assuming funds are eventually appropriated to pay the survivors, they helped achieve justice for the miners.