In the decades following World War II, thousands of men came home from working in the West’s uranium mines, shook the dust from their coats, kicked off their worn boots, and put down a piece of that day’s labor. "Miners kept chunks of yellowcake in their houses," says Mary Helen deKoevend, former mayor of Nucla, Colo., a center of uranium mining during the Cold War. But they didn’t know that they were also bringing their work home in their lungs, says Sharon Grundy, a doctor in nearby Naturita who treats former miners for mining-related illnesses, such as lung cancer and pulmonary silicosis.
Uranium mining in the West hit a peak in the 1970s, when nuclear power plants sprang up across the nation and their fuel source fetched about $50 per pound. But accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, combined with a flood of foreign uranium in the 1990s, caused uranium prices to plummet. In the last year, however, the price has doubled to more than $20 per pound. President Bush now advocates nuclear power, which generates 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, saying it is "one of the safest, cleanest sources of power in the world, and we need more of it here in America" (HCN, 5/16/05: Congress touts 'green energy,' but bill is black and blue).
Cotter Corp. has already hired 21 people to work at its three uranium mines in western Colorado, and expects to hire another 40 by the end of the year. The mines have so far escaped attention from activists, and even state regulators — although one of them has been operating for over a year — because their permits were either still active or only temporarily suspended, says Russ Means with the Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology. To start producing ore again, Cotter simply filed a notice with the state. "Technically, the (mines) have been active all along," says Means. Now, other companies in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are also considering sending miners back underground to remove the yellow-flecked rock.
In the past, ignorance and lax oversight characterized the regulation of uranium mining. "There were a lot of shortcuts taken at that time," says Jake DeHerrera, assistant district manager in Denver for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. For example, when radon — an odorless, but toxic, byproduct of uranium — was detected, regulators and employers did not always require miners to wear respirators.
When radon gas is inhaled, it slowly damages lung cells, increasing the risk of lung cancer and other lung diseases. A 2000 report from the National Institute of Occupational Health concluded that workers who mined uranium during the 1940s through the 1970s died from lung cancer at a rate six times greater than expected. And because it can take decades for the disease to manifest itself, in many cases the company’s liability for worker’s compensation had expired, and the federal government has had to pay millions in damages.
But those are problems of the past, say today’s mine operators. According to Cotter spokesman Jerry Powers, modern mines adhere to all federal safety standards, and respirators are mandatory when radon is present.
Although current mining safety guidelines are more specific and better-enforced than in the past, uranium mining is still a dangerous business. "Zero is the only exposure that is totally safe," says Dr. Bruce Baird Struminger, medical director for the radiation-exposure screening program on the Navajo reservation (see story below). Struminger says that if miners wear respirators, they can avoid most lung disease. But he wonders: "Is it worth it for anyone to potentially die, to get uranium out of the ground?"
Nucla residents, however, see mining as part of their heritage, and they are encouraged by the resurgence and what it means for their town’s struggling economy (HCN, 5/8/00: Former uranium town wants its waste back). "We’re 100 percent loving it over here," says Roger Culver, owner of the local paper, the San Miguel Basin Forum. "(Nucla’s) always been pro-mining. We know that when you turn on a light, there is an industry behind it."
The author is a former HCN intern.
Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "Navajos put more than 17 million acres off-limits."