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A plume rises at the Nevada Test Site in an Operation Teapot explosion of April 15, 1955. Nevada testing during the 1950s left a downwind legacy of death.

When Chip Ward pondered whether to move his family to Grantsville in 1978, he considered factors like good schools, low property taxes and a small-town atmosphere. And, of course, he wanted to be near the desert that touched his soul and prompted him to leave behind the verdant valleys of Vermont.

It never dawned on him that the desert's beauty also harbored dark, deadly secrets — lands contaminated with residue from chemical weapons and nuclear fallout, air sullied with countless tons of pollutants and water swirling a potent brew of toxins.

From his front porch on Cooley Street, the professional librarian can point to three houses where children had been confined to wheelchairs, another where a child had spina bifida, and yet another where a child was missing a kidney. He can also point to other homes where kids died of cancer. And there was a 32-year-old woman on his block who also died of cancer. All in a small town of only about 4,400 people at the time.

Ward, whose dogged determination to find out what was wrong with the land he loves resulted in the book "Canaries on the Rim," is hardly alone in his suspicions that Utah's environment is contaminated with toxins that are sickening and killing thousands of Utahns.

The late Irma Thomas once documented 49 cases of cancer in her St. George neighborhood, and now her daughter, Michelle, is stricken with a host of ills. Former state lawmaker Bev White points to 14 cases of multiple sclerosis within a two-block area of the Tooele home where she has lived the past 50 years.

Former Monticello High School principal Dale Maughan recalls the leukemia deaths of seven young people who lived within a five-block radius of his home in southeastern Utah.

One was his son, Jon Alan Maughan, who died July 5, 1966, 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. There were no fences around the pond, no warning signs and nothing to keep the southerly winds from blowing the tailings dust into nearby homes.

From one end of Utah to another, victims of Utah's toxic legacy tell strikingly similar stories — stories of deceit and complicity by government and industry to bury the truth about the dangers of uranium mining and nuclear and chemical weapons testing, about public safety sacrificed in the name of corporate profits.

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"You learn quickly that the first victim of nuclear weapons or nuclear power is the truth, and the first casualty is the government's ability to tell the truth," said home-grown nuclear activist J. Preston Truman.

Disconcerting to survivors of Utah's toxic past is that the legacy will inevitably continue into the future as industry, a co-conspirator with government in nuclear programs, supplants government as the cause of environmental degradation. One recent study by the Public Interest Research Group found that among all states, Utah ranks fourth nationally in the release of chemicals that affect child development and learning. Tooele County ranked first in the nation among counties.

The No. 1 air polluter in all of North America — Magnesium Corp. of America (MagCorp) — is located on the western shore of the Great Salt Lake, upwind from 1.5 million people living along the Wasatch Front.

"You would think we would have learned from the past," Truman said. "Utah has been the ultimate sacrifice zone."

America's dumping ground

Utah's toxic legacy is inextricably intertwined with global events of the past 50 years that transformed a state renowned for natural beauty into a dumping ground.

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A uranium frenzy in the 1950s and '60s resulted in tens of thousands of tons of radioactive mill tailings left behind after the boom went bust, not to mention the thousands of abandoned and potentially deadly open mines throughout southern Utah.

Above-ground nuclear testing in the late 1950s and early 1960s sent radioactive pink clouds billowing over unsuspecting residents in Nevada, Utah and Arizona. Thousands died of cancers believed linked to the tests.

Along the populous Wasatch Front, steel mills and smelters built to bolster the war effort contaminated surrounding lands and underground water with lead and arsenic while spewing deadly chemicals into the air.

Mining companies like Kennecott also contributed to a dangerous concoction of toxic byproducts handed down to future generations. The company is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars cleaning up the messes it made in the past.

Today, Utah is home to 20 actual or proposed Superfund sites, most of them located in Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Tooele counties. With Superfund running out of money, another 14 contaminated sites have been targeted for cleanup under a different program that entails voluntary cleanup by property owners.

Additionally, four uranium mill sites have already been cleaned up at a cost of almost $1 billion, and cleanup at a fifth site, the Atlas mill outside Moab, is expected to cost as much as $300 million. Almost all of it is taxpayers' money.

But while billions are being spent to clean up the wastes dumped on Utah in the past, environmentalists and citizen activists question the wisdom of some of Utah's political leaders in the late 1970s and early '80s whose attitude of "waste is welcome here" opened Utah to non-Utah waste.

  • Millions of tons of hazardous and radioactive waste generated in other states are now being dumped in Utah — specifically Tooele County, which is home to the nation's only commercial low-level radioactive waste dump, as well as one hazardous waste dump and two hazardous waste incinerators. (One is now shut down.)

  • A commercial waste dump in Carbon County accepts wastes deemed hazardous in other states but not in Utah.

  • A uranium mill in San Juan County accepts radioactive wastes from around the nation that are "recycled" to recover small traces of uranium.

  • A military incinerator in Tooele County is being used to destroy massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.

  • And it may not end there.

    Sometime during the next two years, Utah could find itself a home to 40,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods — the most toxic of all nuclear wastes — as well as less-radioactive wastes resulting from the decommissioning of nuclear power plants around the nation.

    "We are at a critical crossroads . . . when people need to make decisions about what they want for their children and grandchildren," said veteran activist Steve Erickson of Utah Downwinders. "For them, we have to reverse a legacy we have allowed to take place on this land for 50 years."

    Vitro's legacy

    Ironically, it may have been the massive cleanup of one Cold War mess that precipitated Utah's current status as one of the nation's premier dumping grounds.

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    In the late 1970s, Utah lawmakers were grappling with how to remove millions of tons of radioactive soils from the defunct Vitro uranium mill in South Salt Lake. After years of political wrangling, politicos decided to remove them to an isolated parcel of state land in Tooele County where they were capped in clay cells, out of sight and out of mind.

    "I tried to tell people at the time we didn't want this stuff, that if we agree to it (accepting Vitro wastes) we will get it all, all the Superfund wastes, everything," White said.

    At the time, White, a state lawmaker representing Tooele County, found little sympathy among her legislative colleagues or the governor.

    In fact, she had little support for her opposition among Tooele County residents. "They didn't know a lot about it, but they had lived with germ warfare depots and military depots and incinerators, and these provided good jobs."

    During the time Vitro wastes were being shuffled to Tooele County, one small hazardous-waste company was already in operation and at least six other commercial waste companies had taken out options to buy or lease properties in the western desert. Most of those projects never got off the ground after Tooele County decided to restrict waste disposal to a zone around the Vitro tailings.

    "A lot of the options those companies had were on lands outside the zone," White said. "We could have had every waste company in the world out there if we had just made the zone bigger."

    Still, the zone was big enough for two hazardous waste incinerators and an expanded hazardous waste landfill. The cornerstone of Tooele County's hazardous waste zone was Envirocare, a facility built by Khosrow Semnani, who purchased lands around the Vitro site to store low-level radioactive waste similar to the Vitro wastes. The site now accepts radioactive wastes, 600,000 tons in the last year alone, from Cold War cleanup sites around the nation.

    Envirocare now contributes about $5 million annually to county coffers — mostly fees based on 5 percent of gross revenue — while the remaining hazardous waste facilities, now owned by Safety-Kleen, pay another $1 million. Combined, the revenue from waste companies is the backbone of the county budget.

    Katie, bar the door

    Tooele County's lusty embrace of the waste industry did not go unnoticed by state lawmakers, who became increasingly concerned in the late 1980s after one waste company after another targeted Utah. Several were already in operation when lawmakers in 1990 implemented their own conditions: Any future hazardous or radioactive waste dumps or incinerators would have to be approved by the Legislature and the governor after a detailed review by state environmental regulators.

    No new hazardous or radioactive waste facilities have been licensed since then.

    Environmentalists say all that was too little, too late.

    State officials, led by Gov. Mike Leavitt, are frantically trying to block Goshute Indians in Tooele County from locating a high-level nuclear waste facility on tribal lands in Skull Valley not far from the existing hazardous and radioactive waste facilities. Tribal lands are exempt from state regulation, and federal regulators thus far seem inclined to grant a storage license to a consortium of nuclear power companies, called Private Fuel Storage (PFS).

    There is growing pessimism among PFS opponents that the state will be successful in its opposition, barring presidential or congressional intervention.

    "The state is paying the price now for decisions it made in the past," Ward said. "It is hypocritical of Leavitt to tell the Goshutes 'no' when the state has a long-standing policy of supporting (commercial waste disposal). The lesson of PFS is that it's hard to close the gates once they have been opened so wide."

    Leavitt disagrees with that assessment, saying low-level radioactive and hazardous waste disposal have been properly managed over the past two decades with no threat to public safety. And it is grossly unfair to compare low-level and hazardous wastes with the potent concoction of high-level wastes that remains lethal for 10,000 years.

    "To compare those wastes to high-level wastes," Leavitt said, "is like comparing a BB gun to a howitzer."

    Leavitt isn't about to concede that Goshute tribal sovereignty could trump his effort to block the facility. But he may need the help of President George W. Bush, a friend and political ally.

    "Utah picked up an important new tool in this fight," Leavitt said of Bush's presidential victory. And it will certainly help, he added, that Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, is the chairman of the House Resources Committee, something that could foster congressional maneuvering that could block PFS.

    If the spent nuclear fuel comes to Utah, Erickson said, "There will be no limit on the kinds of wastes that will go there. There will be no turning back."

    Whom do you trust?

    Supporters of the project, including Tooele County commissioners, dismiss the frenzy of opposition as political and emotional hysteria. Officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a contingent of nuclear scientists and a proven safety record all support the industry mantra that nuclear wastes can be stored safely, they say.

    But should we believe them?

    "There are interests that cannot be trusted," Leavitt said. "There is a financial incentive for utilities to move that waste out of their backyards into ours, and there is a financial incentive for the Goshutes. And there is an incentive for the NRC and the Department of Energy to find a place for this stuff.

    "We need to be highly suspicious."

    For Utahns who have been victimized by repeated government deceit, suspicion comes easy.

    Leavitt remembers his grandmother in Bunkerville in southern Nevada hanging out clothes to dry as pink clouds of radioactive dust passed overhead, and he points to family members who have had cancer he believes was caused by above-ground nuclear testing.

    "I remember at the time the fear we had of leukemia," he said. "Everyone was aware of it."

    Distrust of the government was a focal point of the 2000 campaign, not just by Leavitt but by Congressman-elect Jim Matheson, who maintained in no uncertain terms that the cancer death of his father, popular two-term Gov. Scott Matheson, was attributable to the same nuclear testing.

    In fact, Utah's toxic legacy is as much a story about government and industry misdeeds as it is about environmental disasters. These were deliberate cover-ups brought to light decades after the carnage was inflicted on an unsuspecting population.

    For example, uranium miners were assured that working in the mines was not dangerous, even though U.S. Health Service officials knew beyond doubt that a vast majority of miners would die of radiation diseases. One study, kept secret from miners, estimated an 80 percent mortality rate among uranium miners.

    They also kept secrets from those living in the path of radiation from more than 100 above-ground nuclear tests in Nevada from 1951 to 1963. Government propaganda at the time extolled the safety of the tests at the same time tests were coordinated so prevailing winds would blow the radiation toward sparsely populated Utah and Nevada — states with little political clout.

    Atomic Energy Commission chairman Gordon Dean once dismissed this entire region as suitable only for the disposal of razor blades.

    Leavitt notes with a sense of weary irony that these are some of the same federal entities, or successor agencies, that are now asking Utahns to trust them that high-level nuclear waste storage is safe.

    "I hope the federal government has improved on its trustworthiness, and I think it has," Leavitt said. "Call it a sense of optimism seasoned with a sense of reality. But I have no illusions that they will look at their own interests and they will cast our public safety issues adrift at sea."

    It wouldn't be the first time.

    E-mail: spang@desnews.com; donna@desnews.com