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COLUMN ONE : Utah Miners--Victims of Atomic Age : Those who dug uranium from the earth suffer a high rate of cancer. Though officials had early warnings, they did little to ease the danger. Congress considers compensation.

June 02, 1990|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MARYSVALE, Utah — 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."

Denies Responsibility

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."

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