Shades of hope for uranium's forgotten victims

A proposed bill expands worker compensation

  • Warning sign at the Union Carbide Uranium Mill near Rifle, Colorado, 1972.

    Bill Gillette, National Archives 543645

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Over the years, victims ineligible for compensation have been forced to take matters into their own hands, with limited success. In one recent case, 179 residents of the old uranium milling town of Uravan, Colo., or their survivors sued mill owner and operator Union Carbide Corporation for causing various cancers and other illnesses. In August 2009, a federal appeals court ruled with Union Carbide, claiming the victims lacked evidence of "factual causation."

Proving exactly what caused a cancer is next to impossible in the laboratory, let alone the courtroom. Most of the limited health studies of non-working residents have failed to draw strong, population-level connections between uranium and health problems. These studies are often hampered by incomplete health records, lack of uranium exposure data, and failure to keep track of residents who have moved, according to Johnnye Lewis, research professor in pharmaceutical sciences at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Lewis is leading a research effort that uses more comprehensive methods. Preliminary results, she said, have linked increased rates of kidney diseases and autoimmune disease with residents’ proximity to uranium mines in New Mexico's Navajo Nation.

To the north, in Monticello, Utah, Fritz Pipkin believes he has lived the connection between uranium and illness for the last 60-some years.

Pipkin grew up in Monticello, where a uranium mill operated for 20 years until it closed in 1960, leaving a pile of tailings and contamination that became a Superfund cleanup site in 1986. Pipkin, like other children who played in the sandy, radioactive mill tailings, was eventually diagnosed with leukemia. He helped form the Victims of Mill Tailings Exposure group and secured federal funding to screen residents for health problems.

"We are trying to help the ones who lived on the other side of the fence," Pipkin said. "Wives and children and the residents of the town who fall through the cracks.… (The mill) was owned entirely by the federal government and they don't want to compensate us."

His network of former Monticello residents stretches from California to New York "They say, 'Don't stop. We know that mill caused our cancer,' " said Pipkin.

A 2007 Utah Department of Health study confirmed that assertion – almost. The study found increased   rates of lung, bronchial and stomach cancers among Monticello residents and deemed the mill a "plausible" cause. So far, however, such findings have not been enough to spur government aid.

If the proposed compensation bill passes, further studies could close the information gap and bring help to Monticello residents.

"But that's way down the road," said Pipkin, whose leukemia is currently in remission.

"If it happens at all."

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