We aimed for Russia and hit the West

  • Diane Sylvain

Former Arizona congressman Stewart Udall served as Interior Department Secretary during the 1960s when landmark bills such as the Wilderness Act and Endangered Species Act became law. When Udall returned to Arizona, however, he took on a cause that would change his life.

With a team that included members of his family, Udall investigated what happened to people in the West who heeded the nation's call to produce uranium for nuclear bombs. Udall had to confront Cold War secrecy as he spent years investigating, then preparing lawsuits on behalf of uranium miners and "downwinders." The work shocked him, Udall says, as he came to realize the extent of our government's subterfuge.

"The only victims of U.S. nuclear arms since World War II have been our own people."

- House Investigations Subcommittee (1980)

On a blustery day in the winter of 1979, I drove from Phoenix to the Navajo Reservation to conduct interviews with the widows of Navajo uranium miners. A few miles west of the landmark spire known as Shiprock, I was reminded of an earlier trip through this colorful valley when I was a freshman congressman in the mid-'50s.

Now, 24 years later, I was back as a personal injury lawyer. With the help of interpreters, attorney Bill Mahoney and I were to learn about the epidemic of lung cancer which had settled like a plague on the families who lived in the vicinity of Cove and Red Rock and Lukachukai.

We were told that some of the first uranium mines on the Navajo Reservation were located nearby and that Kerr-McGee, a major oil company, had been the main employer of the pastoral, mostly illiterate Navajos.

Very few of the Navajo miners were smokers and above ground they breathed some of the cleanest air in the United States. Yet they contracted lung cancer and few survived for more than a few months after the onset of their illnesses.

The impact on families was severe. Most victims died in their 30s or 40s, leaving their widows with families of seven and eight children. None of the widows knew about or had received workmen's compensation benefits for the deaths of their husbands.

Nearly all of the widows and their deceased husbands had grown up in the 1920s and 1930s, when the federal government provided few educational opportunities for Indian children. They had a meager understanding of modern American life.

Bill Mahoney and I had both grown up on the edge of the Navajo Reservation, and we compared impressions on our drive back to Phoenix: the spartan culture of the Navajos, the stoicism of the women we had met. We marveled that these young widows had held their large families together in a subsistence economy where wood-gathering and sheep and goats were vital to survival.

During our decade-long, losing fight in the federal courts to force the government to accept responsibility for its misdeeds, the plight of these Navajo families became a crusade for the Udall family. My wife Lee formed a nonprofit organization which raised funds to finance the legal battle; our sons Tom, Denis and James, and our daughter Lori served as investigators on the reservation.

We formed some unforgettable friendships. I will always remember Betty Jo Yazzie, the widow who lost two husbands to uranium mining. Her first husband, Kee Yazzie, a deaf-mute, exemplified the grit of the Navajos. A small, muscular man, Kee Yazzie married Betty Jo, fathered seven children, and became a breadwinner by going underground and working for 15 years as a mucker. He died at age 45.

A few months after our trip to Navajo country, I traveled to the village of Marysvale, Utah, to interview a group of non-Indian widows. In the jagged mountains of central Utah was another valley of death. There, Mormon families struggled with a cancer epidemic foisted on them by the Atomic Energy Commission.

As a lung-cancer "laboratory" secretly sponsored by the government, Marysvale was a shocker. Some Marysvale miners in the 1950s absorbed more radiation in one week than miners who worked for 20 years in the well-ventilated mines of the 1970s. The upshot was a higher rate of lung cancer than any other uranium mines in the United States ever generated.

As tallied by widows who counted the headstones in the cemetery they had nicknamed "Cancer Hill," 31 of the 50 Marysvale miners had already died, and new names were being added to the list every year. Rell Frederick, one of the living miners, underscored the extent of the carnage when he told me that the eight miners who worked with him in one stope were all lung cancer victims.

The Atomic Energy Commission created a uranium mining industry from scratch in the 1940s, and that agency was the sole purchaser of its output for nearly two decades. Had it been so inclined, the AEC could have ordered the installation of low-cost ventilation systems to protect U.S. uranium miners.

There were no "national security" shortages of this raw material in 1948, and the AEC's decision to put the flow of ore ahead of human health sacrificed the lives of hundreds of miners.

The gruesome policy was first revealed three years later when a prominent AEC medical expert, William F. Bale, came to Marysvale to take readings that would enable him to establish a new method of measuring airborne radiation in mines.

His survey revealed concentrations of radon 4,400 times greater than what was allowed in the nation's radium dial-painting industry.

Fully aware of the AEC's aggressive production policy, Dr. Bale included this blunt compliment in the report he filed with the AEC's medical doctors: "They (U.S. Public Health Service researchers) seem to have conducted their work so far without unduly alarming the miners as to the hidden hazards that may exist, or in any way impeding mining operations."

Big lies, big coverups

The classic cover-up by the AEC evolved into the most long-lived program of public deception in U.S. history. Each lie generated additional misconduct and additional lies, and any search for evidence concerning the decisions that initiated the cover-up hit a blank wall.

Cover-ups invariably engender illusions that warp the judgment of those who participate in them. When AEC officials embraced the idea that their efforts would be discredited and disrupted if they admitted radiation dangers, they entered a moral wasteland.

Decision-making was perverted; twisted reasoning fostered a conviction that it was more important to protect the tests than to protect civilians.

Any cover-up must be enforced by designated agents, and one man emerged in 1953 as the quarterback of the AEC's damage control. His name was Gordon Dunning. Although the personnel charts of the 1950s list him as a low-level "rad-safe" official, other documents demonstrate that he had authority to manage and suppress information about the radiation released by the testing of nuclear weapons.

Dunning's name appears on all of the crucial cover-up reports in the AEC's secret files, and the doyens of his agency came to regard him as an aide who excelled at handling emergencies. Gordon Dunning's feats made him a legend - and on more than one occasion in the 1960s I saw AEC commissioners smirk when his name was mentioned.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Gordon Dunning grew up in Watertown, N.Y., and graduated from State Teachers College at Cortland where he majored in physical education and biology. His credentials as a scientist were skimpy: He had never studied radiological medicine, and his experience as a classroom science instructor at a small college hardly equipped him to vault overnight into the role of expert on the environmental and health impacts of ionizing radiation.

Dunning got his battlefield baptism during the muted but ticklish crisis that came after the fallout from the Upshot-Knothole blasts of 1952. The strategems he devised to smother evidence that innocent civilians had been exposed to dangerous doses of radiation told his superiors that he was a valuable addition to their staff. There was nothing sophisticated about the schemes of evasion he devised. Monitors had gathered information about a postmistress and two girls suffering skin burns; with crude expedience, Dunning dumped the information in a folder of "dead" documents.

But it was the deft, decisive way he handled the sheep emergency - a crisis that threatened the very future of the Nevada proving ground - that won him kudos in Los Alamos and Washington. Bomb testers were confronted with overwhelming evidence that over 5,000 sheep died after eating grass laced with fresh bomb products.

Dunning orchestrated a campaign to convince skeptical veterinarians, whom the AEC had called in for consultations, that "toxic weeds' or malnutrition had caused the die-off of sheep.

When Utah health officials and the veterinary experts he had assembled refused to concur in Dunning's written conclusion that "the lesions on the sheep were not produced by radioactive fallout," he first appealed to their patriotism. This ploy failed, so Dunning had the conferees sign a sheet of paper attesting their attendance at this meeting.

A few days later in Washington he flourished those signatures as proof that the experts had reached a postmortem consensus: Radiation was not implicated in the slaughter of the sheep.

Stewart Udall's personal exploration of this nation's Cold War affair with the atom, The Myths of August, $25, was published by Pantheon Books, New York. Copyright 1994 © by Stewart L. Udall. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House Inc.


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