The uranium mine is shut now. Has been for years. Air compressors, tools, coils and pulleys are rusting on the ground. Yet the men who once worked the mine continue to die.
Lynn Frederick toiled in this mine and was happy to get the work until it closed in 1966. Each morning he would leave before sunrise and work deep underground, operating the heavy water drill and carving out chunks of rock from inside the mountain.
Now, Lynn Frederick is missing a lung. He lost it last January after it was diagnosed as cancerous. He is not alone.
By the count of the people in this tiny, isolated community in southwest Utah, 31 of the 50 or so men who worked in the uranium mines around here either have cancer or have died of it. Health experts predict that hundreds more who worked in uranium mines will be dead before it is over, that the price to be paid here on the Colorado Plateau will be heavy indeed.
"I didn't even know what uranium was," said Frederick, 62, who now waits for the day when cancer will claim his remaining lung. "All I knew was that it meant a steady paycheck."
This is where the legacy of the nuclear weapons industry begins for the American West, the testing ground of the Atomic Age. And Marysvale is a natural starting place in the story, because it is one of the spots in the United States where uranium was first wrested from the earth to make atomic bombs.
As the decades have passed and the events have unfolded, it has become clear that the estimated 15,000 miners who worked underground to provide uranium for the nation's defense put themselves at serious risk because few precautions were taken to protect them from exposure to radiation. It is also a story that has largely gone untold because it took place in one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country.
According to figures supplied by the Centers for Disease Control, 350 of 4,146 uranium miners studied since the early 1950s have died of lung cancer--five times the normal death rate. Health experts say much of the reason for the large number of deaths is that the mines were poorly ventilated and, as a result, miners inhaled an inordinate quantity of radioactive particles.
In a 1951 report on uranium mines, radiologist William F. Bale wrote that uranium miners were being subjected to radon doses that were 440 times the maximum allowed then by the Atomic Energy Commission. And his was not the first warning about the dangers of uranium mining.
Among the victims were hundreds of Navajo Indians, who "were sent into the mines without any protective clothing, face masks or respirators," said Leonard Haskie, interim chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council in testimony last March before a Senate subcommittee. "Because they did not know of the hazards, they ate their lunches in the mines and drank the water running through the mines. They also brought radioactive material out of the mines to build their homes."
There is a sub-plot to this story as well, one in which the Atomic Energy Commission knew of the dangers of mining for uranium without proper ventilation but failed to correct the problem. Instead, the AEC, now the Department of Energy, disclaimed any responsibility for miner safety, saying that it could be accountable for uranium and the safety of people around it only after it had arrived at the processing mills.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Public Health Service failed to tell miners they were at risk, even as a secret ongoing study clearly showed that more and more of them were dying of cancer. To further compound the problem, most of the miners with cancer, as well as the families of those who have died from the disease, have been unable to collect workers' compensation. In many cases, the statute of limitations for filing a claim had run out long ago.
Now, more then 20 years after the last mine was closed down because the U.S. government had stockpiled all the uranium it needed, the latest in a series of bills has been introduced in Congress to compensate the miners. The legislation would establish a $100-million trust fund for those who have contracted cancer as a result of mining or being exposed to radiation from atomic bomb testing, people commonly known as "down-winders."
By most estimates, about 25,000 people down range of the Nevada nuclear test site were exposed to radiation during the '50s when bombs were being detonated above ground. Critics of the Atomic Energy Commission contend that the people who lived in the desolate areas of Nevada, Utah and Arizona where the fallout occurred were exposed to lethal doses of radiation that also killed thousands of sheep.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who introduced the legislation in the Senate, said in a statement last February that the level of exposure for the down-winders was "in large part, due to the government's unconscionable failure to properly care for or warn these victims."
After a Senate subcommittee hearing in 1979, a report titled "The Forgotten Guinea Pigs" said the "government totally failed to provide adequate protection for the residents of the area. . . . The greatest irony of our atmospheric testing program is that the only victims of U.S. nuclear arms since World War II have been our own people."
Opposed by Bush
The bill, currently making its way through the legislative process, is opposed by the Bush Administration and the U.S. Department of Justice, based on the argument that there are other avenues of relief and that there is no absolute medical proof that mining and atomic testing led to later diseases. In a letter written last February, Acting Assistant Atty. Gen. Bruce Navarro described the bill as too broad, unjustified and expensive.
The House version of the bill seeking relief for the miners and down-winders is scheduled for a vote on Tuesday. That bill was introduced by Rep. Wayne Owens (D-Utah).
Miners and down-winders have both sued for compensation in the past, but the courts have ruled that the federal government is immune from liability. But in both cases, the courts have said the plight of those exposed should be dealt with by Congress. In a 1985 ruling against the uranium miners, U.S. Judge Blaine Anderson of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said: "This is the type of case that cries out for redress, but the courts are not able to give it. Congress is the appropriate source."
Stewart L. Udall, the former secretary of the Interior, said the legislation making its way through the Congress may be the last best hope for the miners and the down-winders after more than 40 years of being shunted aside. He has worked for more than 11 years, either as a lawyer or advocate, for those affected by radiation.
"I think this year is the year of decision," he said in a recent interview. "If we don't get it this year, that would be the final, unfortunate end to it. We're asking Congress to make a gesture in the direction of justice."
In Udall's view, the story of the miners on the Colorado Plateau--which takes in parts of Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona--as well as the down-winders, is about a group of people who are paying the price because the government believed that atomic weapons had to be built, no matter what the cost. And Marysvale, in a sense, is a microcosm for them both.
Dying Slow Death
Marysvale, like many of the people in it, is dying a slow death. Its roads are dirt and there is only a single gas station and a couple of rundown motels. The dominant building in town is the Mormon church, which sits atop a hill.
But Marysvale was not always like this. It was once a 19th-Century Gold Rush town. During the uranium boom, it had two schools, a theater, five gas stations and a train depot. In those days, a man could make the hefty sum of $400 a week in the mines.
And uranium, for certain, was king in this part of the country. Before the uranium mining, this was a land of hard-scrabble poverty, where a vegetable garden was essential and new clothes were rare. The people hereabouts took pride in the fact that the mines were upgrading their lives. And there was no reason to feel endangered, because it was the government that needed the ore.
"We were innocent," said Joan Anderson, whose husband's right lung was removed in 1987. "We didn't question certain people--our parents, doctors, our government. The public is more educated now, but back then we just didn't question the government. We trusted them. And remember, we were deathly afraid of communists. We were determined to get that ore to defend ourselves.
"They needed the ore so damn bad they forgot everything else," she added. "They wanted the ore out and they were willing to sacrifice their own countrymen to get it."
So the men went into the mines, unaware that as early as 1948, one of the Atomic Energy Commission's own scientists, Dr. Merrill Eisenbud, had warned that there was a danger of radiation exposure. What the miners also did not know was that there was already a large body of research in Europe which showed that Czech and German miners who had been exposed to radiation were dying of lung cancer at uncommonly high rates. And the miners didn't think it terribly unusual that government doctors came around a couple of times a year to do their tests.
Victor Archer remembers that because he was one of the doctors. In 1956, he came west with his family to continue the tests on miners that had been started in the late '40s by the U.S. Public Health Service. He had been warned in Washington before he left that talking out loud about the dangers of uranium mining would not serve him well.
He had heard the story of Dr. Wilhelm Hueper, a researcher with the American Cancer Institute, who had given a speech about the danger in the mines, only to have his travel restricted to east of the Mississippi River.
"I resolved to keep my mouth shut and stay out of trouble if I could," said Archer in a recent interview at his University of Utah School of Medicine, where he is a clinical researcher. "I took the attitude of the disinterested scientist. I said, 'Let's learn all we can from this experience.' "
One thing the scientists already knew at that point was the culprit believed to be causing the health problems. It was not radon itself, an inert gas often found in mines. Rather, it was the material formed after the radon was released into the atmosphere by blasting and drilling.
When that happens, radon begins to decay, forming other radioactive elements that are called daughters. After 13 stages of decay, the radioactive material that the miners breathed was Polonium-210-lead, which had attached itself to dust particles that were dense in the shaft because there was little or no ventilation.
But those were different days, and even though there was a predicted health danger because of lack of ventilation, no one took it very seriously. Archer said it became obvious that only a growing tragedy would attract notice.
"It became apparent we were going to have to pile up enough bodies to get their attention, enough dead to convince them there really was a problem," said Archer.
So the testing began. And it is still being carried out today.
Owners Issue Threat
The public health workers would show up once or twice a year with their trailers that doubled as medical clinics. They would take sputum samples, but never say a word about what they were doing, other than in broad, vague terms. Archer said the mine operators threatened to bar health officials from conducting their tests if the miners were alarmed about the dangers of their work. And if the owners barred them, it would ruin the ongoing study.
Meanwhile, life chugged along in Marysvale. The Hoover Cafe had a huge chunk of uranium ore on its counter for years. Miners would search out the warmest spots in the underground caves to eat their lunch, not knowing that these were the places where they were most likely to be bombarded with radiation.
Other miners would bring particularly "hot" rocks home to amuse their families, showing them how the ore made a Geiger counter jump off the scale. Miners would occasionally have contests to see who was most radioactive. Some people fashioned rock gardens out of uranium ore, shining black lights on them at night to make them glow.
There were no changing rooms at the mine, so the workers came home each night covered with radioactive dust. Mothers washed their husbands' clothes along with those of their children.
When Lynn Frederick came home from work, his twin daughters would jump up for a kiss. But something strange would happen to one of the daughters, Jane Wiley, who is now a nurse.
"I'd hug him for some loving, but within minutes come down with a nauseatingly painful headache," she recalled. Years later, the memory of those headaches still haunts her when she thinks of how her own daughter died of hydroencephalitis (water on the brain). Her sister's stillborn baby did not have a skull.
That the Atomic Energy Commission suspected there were dangers in the mines is without question. An AEC report written in 1952 stated that the exposure to radon and radon daughters in the mines was "too high for safe operation" and that the mines should be properly ventilated. Little was done, however, until 1971, when the federal government established mine safety standards. Why the AEC did nothing is a matter of conjecture.
"They decided for reasons that nobody has ever explained, so you have to guess," said Udall. "I think they didn't want to be bothered, that they wanted to get the thing (nuclear weapons industry) on line so they went down that road."
"You look at it today and it's amazing nobody blew the whistle on them," he said. "The evidence is powerful and overwhelming that the AEC knew (of the dangers) at the beginning."
Arden Higgens, who had a tumor removed from his lung in 1983, walked from grave to grave at the Marysvale cemetery, pointing to the markers of Marysvale residents who had died of lung cancer.
"Go to cemeteries in nearby towns and you'll see more of the same," he said. "It makes you real sad to see all of them together like this--William Cropper, Dan Rosequist, Byron Hanson, Carl Norton, Alvin Christensen, they all got the cancer."
Higgens bent over to rearrange the silk flowers at every grave. Above him was one of the old mines.
"We call it Cancer Hill now," he said.
Researcher Lianne Hart contributed to the reporting of this story.