A legacy of illness
Post-71 miners donâ€™t want to see a repeat of past errors
Strong winds carry misted water through the air and toward Hwy 605 at the Homestake mining site near Milan, NM. on Wednesday.BELOW: [Photo by Jeff Jones/Independent]
First in a series of personal accounts of Post-71 miners.
By Kathy Helms
Post 71 miner Cipriano Lucero reflects on his time working in the uranium mine and the health problems he and his wife are now having which they attribute to exposure to radiation. [Photo by Jeff Jones/Independent]
Helen Savedra listens Wednesday as Linda Evers shares her experiences of working for a uranium mining comapny in the late 1970’s, and the aftermath of her exposure to radiation which she says caused both of her children to be born with birth defects. [Photo by Jeff Jones/Independent]
GRANTS â€” History teaches that what we donâ€™t learn from, weâ€™re destined to repeat, which is why a group of post-1971 uranium workers are headed to Washington Nov. 7 to plead with congressional leaders not to ignore the legacy of Cold War uranium mining as they prepare for a future uranium boom.
Walking with the aid of canes and guided by caretakers, sporting oxygen tanks and unexplainable cysts â€” 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 â€” testimony to a uranium boom that spanned several decades before it went bust â€” is now overseen by the U.S. Department of Energyâ€™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 defense 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 ineligible for 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.
â€œWe are not anti-uranium. We are anti-killing people to get uranium. Thereâ€™s a big difference,â€ 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 spokeswoman for the Post-71 Uranium Exposure Committee when members head to Washington in a few weeks.
Liz Lucero is chair of the committee. Her husband, Cipriano â€œCipâ€ 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 â€” theyâ€™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. â€œThe thing is, uranium is uranium. The same exposure was to the pre-71ers as it was to the Post-71ers â€” and it will be the same to this new generation thatâ€™s going to come in.
â€œPeople tell us, â€˜Why are you looking toward the past? Why donâ€™t you look toward the future?â€™ We are looking toward the future. Weâ€™re looking forward for our children and our grandchildren because we feel that they havenâ€™t taken care of the past.
â€œWeâ€™ve given up our health, weâ€™ve given our lives. Weâ€™ve given the government all â€” and what for? The government has gotten richer and we havenâ€™t gotten diddly-squat. All weâ€™ve gotten is sicknesses,â€ Lucero said.
Evers said uranium mining does bring money into the community. â€œIt does make peopleâ€™s lives better. But I donâ€™t think you should have to sacrifice 30 years of your life. Thereâ€™s just something wrong with that â€” especially since theyâ€™ve known how to protect people and the environment since the 1940s.
â€œItâ€™s a little expensive. It cuts into their profit dollar, and thatâ€™s the bottom line â€” the profit dollar,â€ she said.
â€œI canâ€™t bring up the boom of the â€™70s and the fallout enough times. How many people lost everything they had worked for? How many people have no insurance â€” sick and dying children, sick and dying grandchildren?
â€œAnd those uranium companies didnâ€™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 didnâ€™t give a second glance at Grants until yellowcake got up into the hundreds of dollars per pound.â€
â€œI think they need to quit making the dollar so important and get back to remembering that human life is what shouldnâ€™t be sacrificed for any amount of uranium, for any amount of yellowcake, for any amount of atomic warheads.â€
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, â€œWere you ever over-radiated?â€
â€œWell, never that I was officially told,â€ Evers told him, â€œbut yes, I did work in the uranium mines and went at the age of 18 and worked at Kerr-McGee for 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 and worked there for about 2-1/2 years and took time off to have a baby that had birth defects.â€
Afterward, Evers went to work hauling ore. â€œWe hauled ore from Jackpile Mine to Anaconda Mill and never tarped a truck down that I know of,â€ she said.
â€œThank God my kidsâ€™ birth defects were able to be repaired. They werenâ€™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.
â€œSurgery has fixed all this, but still, the bottom line is I probably would have had perfectly healthy babies if I hadnâ€™t been irradiated. But nobody ever told us that. Nobody ever said, â€˜If youâ€™re working in all this radiation, try not to get pregnant â€” your babies will be defective.â€™ We just were uninformed, and they kept our secret well.
â€œWe never were taught anything about protecting ourselves from radiation. Why canâ€™t they just be honest with the people? Theyâ€™re still going to get their guys out there that will do whatever they can do for the dollar.
â€œBut theyâ€™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 granddaughterâ€™s wedding, or was going to have to spend five years dealing with my childrenâ€™s birth defects before they could be normal kids.
â€œIf they had given me a choice, I probably would have gone and found something else to do. The money wouldnâ€™t have bought me out on that level,â€ Evers said.
â€œFrom our surveys, weâ€™ve come to understand that some of the corporations later in the boom, like toward the lateâ€™ 70s, actually took a serious side to this. I really would like to commend the Chevron Company.
â€œThey 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 didnâ€™t have to take them home.
â€œOf 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 â€” and they got their uranium too,â€ she said.