Impacts of uranium industry in San Juan: past and future
Mar 19, 2008 | 1805 views | 0 0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
by Buckley Jensen

(Editor’s note: Much has happened in the two years since the San Juan Record ran a four-part series on the uranium industry in southeast Utah. In a new series starting this week, we will update the considerable progress both locally, nationally and internationally of the uranium industry and nuclear power generation. This week, we examine the history and the legacy of the boom years of the 1950’s and l960’s. Future issues will deal with the other aspects of the industry and its potential for this area.)

With energy prices skyrocketing worldwide, combined with the fear of global warming caused by fossil fuels, one hope is the clean non-polluting energy created by nuclear power.

Even some of the most rabid anti-nuclear forces are grudgingly admitting that nuclear power plants are one hope to save the world from the carbon dioxide pollution being poured into the atmosphere by fossil fuel generating plants.

With the resurgence of the uranium industry, San Juan County is sitting squarely in the catbird seat. Some feel that southeast Utah has never before had a chance to hitch itself to such a dazzling economic star like the one that is looming on our horizon in the form of U238.

First, lets take a look at the legacy of the last half century in this area, which is in some respects anything but dazzling.

This writer was eight years old when Uranium Fever hit in the 1950’s. My father owned a grocery story. Things got so good he was able to build a much bigger new store (now Blue Mountain Foods in Monticello) in l956. Those were the days when there were more mobile homes in town than permanent homes. Those were the days when new students came and went into the schools almost daily.

Men came from all points of the globe with dollar signs in their eyes, Geiger counters in their hands and with hopes of finding the mother lode.

The vast majority failed and eventually pulled up stakes and left. A few, like Charles Steen, Joe Cooper, Fletch and Grant Bronson, and others hit it big. Theirs is a fascinating story for another time.

The decade of the 1950’s was an exciting time. Along with the oil finds in Aneth and Lisbon, San Juan County had the second highest assessed valuation of any county in Utah.

For a time, teachers in the San Juan School District were the highest paid in the state. Monticello and Blanding were able to build new swimming pools, libraries, schools and other infrastructure most small towns in Utah could only dream about.

Then the mill closed in the 1960’s and Monticello lost about half of its boom day population. Many businesses went bust, and merchants such as my father spent years trying to recover from the economic downturn that followed.

The most serious residual impact of the boom days, especially in Monticello, is the abnormally high incidence of cancer.

For years, a Monticello citizens group, the Victims of Mill Tailings Exposure (VMTE), has maintained that there is a direct link between the elevated cancer deaths in Monticello and the exposure that occurred from dust and smoke from the Vanadium Corporation of America Mill (owned by the federal government) which operated in Monticello from 1941 to l963.

Long after the mill was closed, open tailing piles spread dust over the city every time the wind blew from the south. People used tailings for fill in construction and landscaping. Children played on the large piles and swam in the ponds on the abandoned mill site.

However, it had never been conclusively proved that there is a direct link to the cancers and the government owned mill site.

Earlier this month, the Utah Department of Health released a 70-page report which found cancer deaths in Monticello are “significantly elevated”.

Armed with the report and other data that has been gathered by VMTE, County Commissioners Bruce Adams and Lynn Stevens and administrative assistant Rick Bailey traveled to Washington D. C. to lobby for compensation for victims still living.

“At this time we are not asking for lump-sum payments, which have already been paid to many ‘down-winders’ in Southern Utah,” said Commission Chairman Adams. “We have asked for a $4,000,000 fund to be set up over five years to help with the medical expenses of people who are presently afflicted or those who may be diagnosed with cancer in the future.”

Adams said the group met with all members of the Utah Congressional delegation in Washington, along with several members of the Department of Energy, and that they were encouraged by the attitude of those they lobbied.

“We hope that finally something is going to be done to help those of our community who have been afflicted. We are more optimistic than we have ever been,” Adams concludes.

Steve Young, VMTE Chairman in Monticello, who lost a brother to cancer, was quoted in the Deseret Morning News on March 4, “the lost lives cannot be replaced, but you can begin to assist with the problems caused… it is time to act as the costs continue to compound the human lives being lost.”

The latest life-long member of the community area to die of leukemia was Jim Petersen, a local farmer, and founder and long time owner of the Honda dealership in Monticello.

The negative effects on human health were not understood during the early days of the uranium boom of the 1950’s in San Juan County.

Today, much greater understanding of the health risks associated with the industry will lead to precautions being taken to protect everyone.

Monticello has paid a high price for the “bonanza” of the l950’s. However the Federal Government has given Monticello and the entire area a clean bill of health after the seven year, $200 million cleanup was completed. It now appears they may allow assistance for people now and in the future who suffer from cancer.

This time it is hoped that the economic benefits will greatly outweigh the negatives of the past. It is exciting to contemplate the role that Southeastern Utah may play in one of the great challenges which has ever faced this nation… attaining energy independence.

Stay tuned. Next week we will look at the enormous potential of nuclear energy, what leaders of nations and the industry are saying, and how it may affect us right here in the isolated communities on the Colorado Plateau.
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