Post 71 Uranium Miners Don't Want A Repeat Of Past Mistakes
GRANTS, N.M. History teaches that what we don’t learn from, we’re destined to repeat, which is why a group of post-1971 uranium workers are headed to Washington, D.C., Nov. 7 to plead with congressional leaders not to ignore the legacy of Cold War uranium mining as they gear for a future uranium boom.
Walking with the aid of canes and guided by caretakers, sporti unexplainable cysts and oxygen tanks a handful of former uranium workers met this week with representatives of The Independent to share their stories.
Many of them formerly worked at Ambrosia Lake, near the center of the Grants Mineral Belt, where Uranium Resources Inc. of Texas plans to construct a new state-of-the-art milling facility to process uranium ore mined from around the region.
The mill is expected to employ more than 200 people and have the capacity to process up to 8,000 tons of uranium ore per day.
The Ambrosia Lake Disposal Site in McKinley County testimony to a uranium boom that spanned several decades before it went bust is now overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Legacy Management. Now, it is home to nearby decommissioned uranium mills, abandoned underground mines, mine shafts and vents, ore piles, tailings piles, heap leach piles.
The former mill processed more than 3 million tons of uranium ore between 1958 and 1963 and provided uranium for U.S. Government national defens programs. Those who worked there and are now sick are eligible for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA.
All mill operations ceased in 1982, leaving radioactive mill tailings on approximately 111 acres and a generation of sick workers who are ineligiblefor compensation. Wind and water erosion spread the tailings across a 230-acre area, according to DOE. The disposal cell occupies 91 acres and contains 6.9 million dry tons of contaminated material.
But in its heyday, Ambrosia Lake provided a good living for hundreds of men and women. They were able to feed their families and buy into the American Dream. Now, many just wish they had known the toll it would take on their lives in later years.
“We are not anti-uranium. We are anti-killing people to get uranium.There’s a big difference,” said Linda Evers of Milan, a Post-71 uranium miller who formerly worked for Kerr-McGee and United Nuclear-Homestake.
Evers will be the designated spokesperson for the Post-71 UraniumExposure Committee when members head to Washington in a few weeks.
Liz Lucero is chair of the committee. Her husband, Cipriano “Cip” Lucero, went to work for Anaconda Mill soon after they were married. Later, both they and their children paid the price. Still, Liz agrees that they are not against uranium they’re against the workers not being given proper personal equipment and not being told of the dangers posed by radiation exposure.
She takes special exception to Post-71 miners not being able to collect compensation for radiation-related illnesses. “The thing is, uranium is uranium. The same exposure was to the pre-71’ers as it was to the Post-71’ers and it will be the same to this new generation that’s going to come in.
“People tell us, ‘Why are you looking toward the past? Why don¹t you looktoward the future?’ We are looking toward the future. We’re looking forwardfor our children and our grandchildren because we feel that they haven’t taken ‘are of the past.
“We've given up our health, we’ve given our lives. We've given the government all and what for? The government has gotten richer and we haven’t gotten diddly-squat. All we’ve gotten is sicknesses,” Lucero said.
Liz, 52, developed endometriosis and had to have a full hysterectomy at age 27. One daughter, at 22, came down with rheumatoid arthritis. Another , at 24, was diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis. The Lucero grandchildren have asthma. There is no family history of those type of illnesses.
Evers said uranium mining does bring money into the community. “It does make people’s lives better. But I don’t think you should have to sacrifice 30 years of your life. There’s just something wrong with that especially since they’ve known how to protect people and the environment since the 1940’s.
“It’s a little expensive. It cuts into their profit dollar, and that’s the bottom line the profit dollar,” she said.
“I can't bring up the boom of the ‘70s and the fallout enough times. How many people lost everything they had worked for? How many people have no insurance - sick and dying children, sick and dying grandchildren?
“And those uranium companies didn't give a dang one way or another. They rolled up their doors, they picked up their toys, they took their money and they left, and they didn’t give a second glance at Grants until yellowcake got up into the hundreds of dollars per pound.”
Evers said the uranium companies overlooked safety precautions for the sake of a dollar. “Until that mentality changes, until these companies get it through their ‘taters' that they have to protect the people, they shouldn't be doing anything with uranium,”she said.
“I think they can get uranium, and I think they can do it without killing people. But I think they’re going to have to adhere to some serious regulations and rules to do that and not keep sliding by so I can put $2 in my pocket instead of $1.
“I think they need to quit making the dollar so important and get back to remembering that human life is what shouldn't be sacrificed for any amountof uranium, for any amount of yellowcake, for any amount of atomic warheads.”
Evers was living in Kansas when she first learned that she had a radiation-related degenerative bone disease. When age and genetics were ruled out as factors, the orthopedic surgeon asked her, “Were you ever over-radiated?
“Well, never that I was officially told,” Evers told him, “but yes, I did work in the uranium mines and went at the age of 18 and worked at Kerr-McGeefor three years and took about nine months off to have a baby that was born with birth defects, and then went to work at United Nuclear-Homestake andworked there for about 2-1/2 years and took time off to have a baby that had birth defects.”
Afterward, Evers went to work hauling ore. “We hauled ore from Jackpile Mine to Anaconda Mill and never tarped a truck down that I know of,” she said.
“Thank God my kids’ birth defects were able to be repaired. They weren't life-threatening but it was still a long, drawn-out process. My daughter was born without hips. My son was born without the ability to run food from his stomach to his intestines.
“Surgery has fixed all this, but still, the bottom line is I probably would have had perfectly healthy babies if I hadn't been irradiated. But nobody ever told us that. Nobody ever said, ‘If you're working in all this radiation, try not to get pregnant your babies will be defective.’ We just were uninformed, and they kept our secret well.
“We never were taught anything about protecting ourselves from radiation.Why can’t they just be honest with the people? They’re still going to get their guys out there that will do whatever they can do for the dollar.
“But they’re also going to be shed of people like me that would have found something else to do if I had known I was going to get cheated out of my granddaughter’s wedding, or was going to have to spend five years dealing with my children's birth defects before they could be normal kids.
“If they had given me a choice, I probably would have gone and found something else to do. The money wouldn't have bought me out on that level,” Evers said.
“From our surveys, we've come to understand that some of the corporations later in the boom, like toward the late ’70s, actually took a serious side to this. I really would like to commend the Chevron Company.
“They did provide their people with safety equipment, they did tell them when they were being over-radiated; they did take the proper precautions.They provided showers with hot water and a place to leave your clothes so you didn¹t have to take them home.
“Of all the companies that were out here and doing what they were doing, Chevron is the only one that we can find that did what they were supposed to be doing to protect the people and they got their uranium too,” she said.
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