Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Health Risks From Mines Covered Up: Department of Energy Files Reveal Legacy of Secrecy and Negligence

Disgusting and infuriating but not surprising, unfortunately. Can we really expect any better protection or information dissemination in Virginia? Let's learn from the past and leave the U in the ground. Let's let integrity triumph over greed.

Herald Denver Bureau

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

URAVAN - Health experts working for the state of Colorado and the federal government knew about the dangers of working in uranium mines and mills 60 years ago, but they hid their knowledge from the workers. As a result, workers died from cancer.

This has been public knowledge since the mid-1990s, when the Department of Energy published the results of its "Openness Project," an extraordinary catalog of government failures in the decades after World War II.

The report blames state and federal bureaucrats for "intergovernmental buck passing and decades of study, a course that resulted in the premature deaths of hundreds of miners."

State and federal regulators did plenty of studies. According to the archives of the Department of Energy's Openness Project: On Aug. 25, 1949, Colorado health officials met with U.S. Public Health Service employees to discuss uranium mine and mill safety. The same month, the Colorado Health Department and Colorado Bureau of Mines asked the Public Health Service to do a formal study of the mines and mills.

Public Health Service official Duncan Holaday was in charge of the study, and he quickly found evidence that unventilated mines were exposing workers to cancer-causing levels of radiation. Vents would have helped lessen the danger.

But the Public Health Service couldn't get access to the mines without permission from mine owners. To get permission, inspectors promised the mine owners not to warn workers of radiation hazards, Holaday testified in a lawsuit brought by Navajo uranium miners.

"You had to get the survey done, and you knew perfectly well you were not doing the correct thing ... by not informing the workers," Holaday said, according to the Openness Project report.

In May 1952, the Public Health Service gave its initial results in a report that was released to only state and federal officials and mining companies. A news release said "no evidence of health damage from radioactivity had been found." But the Openness Project report notes lung cancer takes 10 to 20 years to show itself, and public health regulators knew about the risks as early as the 1940s.

In 1960, the Public Health Service at last gave the governors of uranium states such as Colorado what it said was a conclusive link between uranium mining and lung cancer. Yet the Atomic Energy Commission, the Public Health Service and the states continued their talks and studies.

The biggest radiation hazard for miners was radon, a radioactive gas that is formed when uranium decays. Although uranium is radioactive, the radioactive particles are most dangerous when ingested. That happens most often when radon is inhaled in mines with poor ventilation.

It wasn't until 1967 that the federal government finally set a standard for radon in uranium mines, about the same time Colorado and Utah started serious enforcement. Most small Colorado mines weren't ventilated until the 1960s, more than two decades into the uranium boom.

By 1990, miners in one study group had seen 410 deaths from lung cancer - almost five times the rate that statisticians would expect.

The judge in the Navajo miners' case called it the "tragedy of the nuclear age."

Congress in 1990 passed a law to compensate the surviving miners and millers called the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. But of the 165,000 claims filed, only 43,000 have been paid, according to Labor Department statistics cited in a 2008 Rocky Mountain News investigation.


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