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
 

PARADOX, CO – One dark night in 1967, Reed Hayes stepped out onto the gangway over the uranium thickener tank. He was replacing a light bulb at the now-demolished Atlas uranium mill in Moab, Utah. He stumbled, reached desperately for the safety line, and grabbed nothing but air. A worker on the previous shift had forgotten to secure it.

"All of a sudden I go plop!" Hayes recalled. "I go clear to the bottom. I'm in nitric acid, sulfuric acid, uranium yellowcake, and caustic soda. If I hadn't been a good swimmer, I probably would not have gotten out of there."

Since that day 43 years ago, Hayes has suffered from persistent skin problems. He had to call from the emergency room to reschedule his interview for this story.

"Every once in a while it flares up real bad," he explained.

Like many former uranium workers and residents of the West, Hayes has fallen through the cracks of federal compensation programs designed to help those affected by uranium. Only eight of the 25 federally recognized uranium illnesses qualify for help, and Hayes’ condition isn't one of them.

To date, the federal government has spent more than $7 billion compensating people made sick by the government-run nuclear program that fueled the Manhattan Project and the Cold War arms race. As the nation gears up for a nuclear revival, stories like Hayes' bring the lessons of the past into sharp focus. Gone are the days of government secrecy about uranium's harmful effects, of unregulated uranium production and kids playing in radioactive mill tailings. But the widespread health impacts of the last uranium boom still plague communities around the West, and victims are still fighting for recognition.

Now, help may be on the way. A bill introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., would expand the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), making it easier for uranium workers and residents downwind from nuclear test sites to get federal cash and medical help.

At age 73, after decades of paying his own medical bills, Hayes may finally get the help he believes he deserves. In April, the U.S. Department of Labor started covering his treatment. He is still vying for compensation through RECA.

Linda Evers of Grants, N.M., is hoping for the same. After high school in 1976, she went to work crushing ore in the Kerr-McGee uranium mill. During her seven years there, she had two children with birth defects. Then, at age 41, 16 years after she left the mill, she was diagnosed with a degenerative bone disease. At the time, she thought her thumbs were dislocated. The doctor said there was nothing left to put back in place.

"My bones didn't have any joints or ligaments or anything," recalled Evers. Her doctor attributed her bone disease to radiation. But like thousands of uranium workers who worked after 1971, she was not eligible for compensation because of the new safety regulations that had been put in place that year. Those rules were slow to be enforced, she said, leaving workers vulnerable to uranium exposure into the 1990s.

As vice-president of the Post-71 Uranium Exposure Committee, Evers has documented the health problems of her fellow victims and lobbied Congress for compensation. A study conducted by the group found uranium-related health problems in 72 percent of more than 1,000 New Mexico uranium workers who started working after the 1971 cutoff.

The new bill would finally compensate those so-called "post-’71" workers. "This (bill) would be a blessing to so many folks in the uranium-impacted world," said Evers. "All of this comes right back to our radiation exposure," Evers said. "Nuclear power runs all clean and pretty (at power plants), but you don't see the devastation that comes with getting it out of the ground."

Still, many who may have been affected by uranium would remain outside the bill's reach – including Evers' children. Her son was born with a digestive abnormality; he almost starved before receiving corrective surgery at two months old. Her daughter, who was born without hips, developed a bone disease in adulthood. A study of the nearby Shiprock area found increased birth defects near uranium sites, suggesting a wider trend. Others throughout the Southwest's uranium country have similar tales.

In Grand Junction, Colo., radioactive mill tailings were used as building materials, causing increased risk of lung cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A day's drive east, in Cañon City, Colo., a federal health study is investigating the link between sick residents and contamination from the nearby Cotter uranium mill.

The Navajo Nation in the Four Corners region banned all uranium activity in 2005 due to rampant community health problems associated with what the tribe calls "the yellow monster."

But no compensation is available for the many family members and residents of uranium communities who may have been exposed to uranium without ever entering a mill or a mine.

The new bill would provide $15 million to study the connection between uranium and illness in non-working residents and families. If a population-level trend is found, it could potentially lead to help in some future RECA bill. But studies take time – something that many sick uranium victims don't have.

"The sad scenario," said lawyer Keith Killian, "is that it has taken a long time for there to be political motivation to do this." Killian's office has represented about 2,500 uranium victims seeking federal compensation, including Reed Hayes. "If the bill passes, it will affect a fraction of the people who could have used it 20 or 30 years ago."

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