The Montrose Board of County Commissioners is considering a special use permit from Energy Fuels to build a mill near Paradox.

MONTROSE COUNTY — On August 21, the 10th District Appellate Court rejected a lawsuit from Uravan workers, residents and family against UMETCO (former Dow Chemical subsidiary) on the grounds that the plaintiffs could not demonstrate that their cancers and other illnesses would not have occurred “but for” the ionizing radiation from the mill and mines.

The court did not question that the radiation caused “DNA damage and cell death”. On the other hand, not surprisingly, no physicians would testify that there was no way that some other cause such as smoking, bad genes, or exposure sometime in their life to pollutants such as leaded gasoline or urban air pollution could have caused cancer.  

It is not just in the courtroom with a rigid interpretation of law that worker illnesses are not easily accepted.   This is in spite of general acceptance that there are health hazards from radioactivity and that various estimates of health risks have been made for miners and millers over the years. 

One can know that a substance is hazardous and at times that this hazard can be measured and also that exposure of workers or sometimes residents living in the surrounding environment can be measured. 

However this whole process becomes very dense when you try and determine (1) what the overall health risk is for workers or a community from a source of radioactivity and toxics and (2) whether or not, as in the Uravan case, workers or a community have contracted diseases from a hazardous source.

This reporter measured, with Energy Fuels assistance, substantial radioactivity exposure for workers in the Whirlwind Mine, according to interpretations by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) who estimated that workers were exceeding safe exposure for ionizing radiation that could be measured by a Geiger counter or scintillator measuring largely Gamma rays. The Energy Fuels Whirlwind Mine currently meets U.S. Colorado, and Utah occupational and health standards for radon gas control (so called alpha radiation) and did so at the time of my visit.

Epidemiological health studies may be very difficult to conduct with any finality that satisfies the populations that are being examined . Many populations that are sick may be statistically too small to measure.  There is frequently a lack of data on individual exposure to toxins or radioactivity. 

Canon City worker/neighbor radioactivity exposure

Energy Fuels (EF) has committed to avoid any excess worker or residential exposures at their proposed Pinon Ridge mill and has stated that they will operate differently than the Cotter Corporation Canon City Mill to the east of Montrose.  The Cotter mill is permitted by the state of Colorado, but currently closed. Like Uravan, it is a Superfund site as a result of water and soil contamination from tailings.  Cotter paid local residents more than $16 million in 2001 as a settlement for causing excess radiation poisoning and for diseases in surrounding communities.  The mill last violated water quality standards in July, 2008. Unlike Cotter, the EF property is nearly three miles from a residence. 

Cotter also violated Colorado occupational health standards 24 times in 2002, directly resulting in a plant shutdown, had “significant deficiencies” in 2003, was cited in 2004 and 2005 for worker exposure to over the twice the federal standard for “soluble uranium”. 

“Soluble uranium” exposure meant that Canon City workers would have been exposed within the plant at one of several stages of yellowcake milling where chemicals or fluids had been added.

Recent Epidemiological Studies of Uravan, Grants, and Monticello

A 2008 study of Grants, N.M.,  mine and mill workers determined that mine worker deaths were lined to their profession, but it did not determine that mill workers had higher mortality. 

Mining occupational health exposure, including that at current uranium mines, is difficult to control for “ionizing radiation” or gamma and beta radiation that results from worker drilling and blasting surrounding concentrated veins of uranium.  The ionizing radiation exposure levels at yellowcake mills, even in the poorly documented unregulated past, were probably somewhat lower than those at mines although they may have exposed much more of the residential population through tailings.

Current uranium mill radon and ionizing exposures should be substantially lower although it is not realistic to presume that a new Pinon Ridge Mill or a possibly reconstructed Canon City Mill will have no occupational risk from radioactivity.

Two studies published in 2007 by Vanderbilt University researchers found significant increased risks of death from lung cancer among Montrose County West End residents and former uranium miners residing in the Uravan district, but no increased mortality risk for any other cancer. Noncancerous diseases were not investigated.  The Vanderbilt studies did not determine that non-uranium workers in the population had higher cancer rates.

A 2006 Utah Department of Health (UDOH) study initially found no evidence of increased frequency of cancers through 2004 among Monticello, Utah, residents who lived in the town during the time a uranium mill operated and before it was reclaimed.

But UDOH significantly revised their conclusions in December 2007, using more precise

methods to ascertain cancer cases. The state detected significantly elevated rates of lung,

bronchial and stomach cancers, compared with overall state rates, for the period 1973 to 2004 and said it was “plausible” that the mill could be a source.

EF memo to BOCC, Sept. 2

However, an example of a different interpretation of this same study is provided in a September 2, 2009 memo from Frank Filas of EF to the Montrose County Commissioners. Filas excerpted the following from the Utah study: “The report did not find conclusive evidence that the rates in the city of Monticello and surrounding area were increasing at a greater frequency than the rest of the state of Utah.”

In fact, the two statements are not contradictory. They represent different visions of what can be gleaned from a difficult study. The rates of three cancers were higher between 1973 and 2004, the overall cancer rates were not increasing by the time the study was done. 

NIOSH investigators are quick to point out that definitive studies that prove that certain communities have suffered more cancer from hazardous substances are often problematic, and that within these communities those who have a tendency to be able to tolerate more toxins or more radioactivity are likely to stay, and the sick ones will leave.   They add that it is very difficult to track workers who were working for one or five years in a mine or mill with terrible records some 30 or 50 years later.

In 1993, the United Nations Select Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation estimated that uranium mill workers working under international occupational health regulations (similar to the U.S.) have about a 1 in 99 risk of excess cancers. This is probably far better than in the past.  Two years later, the International Commission on Radioactivity Protection estimated that background radiation will cause 1 in 286 excess deaths from cancer.  Both numbers are generally accepted by the nuclear industry; one is the world we live in and the other is the risk that workers take.   

Both numbers are also very high compared to US EPA permitted health risks for toxic chemicals that generally are less than 1 in 10,000 excess cancer deaths.

EF declaration on radioactivity exposure

   Here is the conclusion of the Energy Fuels August 28 “Radiological Exposure Pathways Report” submitted to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment:  “The main radiological exposure pathway from the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill to people in the vicinity of the mill is inhalation of radon progeny and particulates containing Thorium-230 and Radium-226.  Sources of particulates and radon progeny include:

• The ore haulage, storage, and handling at the ore pad.

• Grinding of the ore in the mill.

• Mill tailings.

• Transportation accidents involving the release of yellowcake.

“For personnel working in the mill, the main radiological exposure pathway is from inhalation of yellowcake dust, ore dust, and radon progeny, and from exposure to gamma radiation from radionuclides outside their bodies”   

The report estimates that the amount of radiation measurable at the property line will be relatively low compared to background radioactivity, and does not attempt to estimate worker exposure.

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