The Man: Uranium Mill Cleanup - 'Fat Paycheck' - Renal Cell Carcinoma
By Kathy Helms
GALLUP – Twenty-five years ago Phillip James Lee Jr. of Shiprock went to work with Navajo Engineering Construction Authority, lured by a fat paycheck.
Now, 25 years later, he is paying the price, Lee told a group of former uranium workers last week at a Post '71 Uranium Workers Committee meeting in Gallup.
Lee, who turned 51Sunday, said he worked for NECA in Shiprock from June 1985 to around September 1986, operating a scraper during cleanup of the former Kerr-McGee mill, hauling contaminated fill. He helped gather all the materials for disposal in the Department of Energy uranium mill tailings site now located behind NECA.
“We went down about 20 feet and the bosses would be up there watching us. All the big old timber that was used to support the mine were going into our scrapers. It was like purple and pink – real fine sand. They even made a road down to the river for us. We went down there and they used a Geiger counter, and we'd load that up until there was no more contamination.
“There was quite a few of us at the peak of it, but there were only so many of us that really went down into that big mine area that drove the scrapers. Sometimes our machines would get contaminated. We'd park it and they'd spray it down, and supposedly that would get rid of the contamination. We'd jump back on and take off again,” he said.
The workers were given paper filters to cover their mouths and what he believes was a Geiger-counter was used to check their hands and clothes before they went to lunch or left work. “A lot of people didn't do that. They didn't even think about it.”
But he was careful. His wife would bring soapy water and he would wash off really well, he said.
“I was lured by big money back then -- $14 an hour was a lot. They gave me a $500 check every Friday. I was satisfied. Two and a half years, they said, you're going to do this job. They would tell us it was not that dangerous. We'd get a 30 minute break and go back to work. They'd push us – 'Get this many loads a day.' We were getting close to 100 loads a day.
“We worked ourselves out of a job. We did it in less than a year and a half. Congratulations, you made NECA money! They were all happy. All we got was a lousy hat,” he said.
Lee worked at NECA another five years from 2000 to 2005 as a guard. “The fine dust would blow from the piling side and from that lagoon with the contaminated water. I wouldn't really want to eat my lunch at the guard shack. I would try to get in the unit and park out there and eat.”
Last August, Lee thought he had a hernia. Instead, he was diagnosed with cancer – renal cell carcinoma. “That cancer was 10 centimeters. They took my left kidney out,” he said. His medical papers described it as “grossly unrecognizable.”
But he was still having pain. In February his doctor did another CAT scan and found a spot on his pancreas – 2.3 centimeters. “He said, 'We can find out now if it's cancerous. Go to San Juan Regional, they'll stick a long needle in your abdomen, but it might cause more problems. Or you can opt to wait two months for another CAT scan.'
“I said, 'I'll do the CAT scan.' In April, I went back. That thing had grown from 2.3 to 3.2 centimeters, and it showed other things – a spot on my lung, on my other kidney, my pancreas.”
The doctor referred him to an oncologist, and on June 23 he went in for a PET scan. “It's similar to a CAT scan but it checks specifically for cancer. It's going to light up all the areas that the cancer has spread,” he said.
He was told that if the cancer was just on his pancreas they could re-cut him in the same place and take off part of the pancreas, “but if the PET scan shows it's spread all the way across, I'm going to have to start chemotherapy,” he said.
Monday, Lee received relatively good news from his doctor.
“They said they are going to cut the tail of my pancreas off. So there goes part of another organ, but at least it didn't spread. That's what I was really worried about,” he said Tuesday. “They're going to do another PET scan in six months to see that it hasn't spread. Hopefully it won't come back after they do cut it out.”
In 1983, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Navajo Nation entered an agreement for cleanup of the Shiprock mill site. Lee said he has tried to get medical help from the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, or EEOICPA, administered by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The program is supposed to provide lump-sum compensation and health benefits to eligible Department of Energy nuclear weapons workers – including employees, former employees, contractors and subcontractors.
“I checked there and they gave me the runaround,” he said. He also checked out the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act program. “They gave me the same thing. I'm really going through a lot and they keep telling me, 'You're not eligible for anything.' It's hard dealing with it.”
A plume containing about 1.2 million cubic yards of contaminated groundwater is now present beneath the former mill site. The plume extends beyond the former mill site boundaries to cover an area about 1.6 miles long by nearly a mile wide. The San Juan River lies about 600 feet away from the disposal cell, separated by a 50 to 60 foot steep slope.
In 1961 a test hole was drilled 1,850 feet deep on the terrace northwest of the disposal cell. Artesian flow from this hole, which was not capped, has continued for the past 49 years, sending about 64 gallons per minute across the terrace into Bob Lee Wash, which eventually drains to the San Juan River.
Contaminated groundwater has been found in the alluvial aquifer as well as the Bob Lee and Many Devils washes. The extracted groundwater is piped to an 11-acre evaporation pond on the terrace. The site is monitored by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Legacy Management, which anticipates that natural flushing from the artesian well could clean the floodplain aquifer within 75 years.
“The whole groundwater in Shiprock is contaminated,” Lee said. “I showed my grandchildren what got me sick about a month ago, and that lagoon (evaporation pond) was almost completely full of contaminated water – and it's oozing across.”
Another Lee family, not related to Phillip Lee, grew up in the mill area. The Bob Lee Wash is named for their father, Jimmy Bob Lee, who died of stomach cancer.
Lee's daughter, Annie King, said the family hogan is still there and the artesian well is on their grazing area. The family is in dispute with the Navajo Nation about the adjacent Shiprock Fairground site. “That fairground is contaminated,” said King. “That's why we want no fair going on there. It's not safe.”
Her brother, Raymond Lee, 49, said he and his siblings played throughout the mill site when they were young. “It was like, torn down, but we didn't know any better. They had kind of wastewater that used to come out from the Bob Lee Wash. I used to stand up there and we used to jump off and swim in it. It was fun in the summertime,” he said. They also used to drink the water.
“There was like pits down on the bottom and there was rafts in there and we used to just move around the rafts – like making a movie, how they have those boats – we were just having a fun time. We didn't know all those were just uranium pits. They had like yellow-brown caked around the edges of them. We didn't know what it was when we were small. I don't know, maybe after a while I might be glowing,” he said.
The family said Kerr-McGee also would put monitors inside their houses. “They used to tell us – everybody that was here that lived there – to move up on top of the hill because they wanted to have this smoke, or whatever, come through, and then we could go back down.
King used to watch the monitor. “Sometimes the needle would go all the way over,” she said.
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