Dangerous playground: Abandoned uranium mill was favorite spot By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent 5/13/2011 CAMERON – From the time he was 4 or 5 years old, Larry Gordy used to follow his dad on horseback across the multicolored landscape of the Painted Desert in Cameron. Eventually he started riding off on his own, seeking adventure amid the sandstone and mudstone hills while herding sheep and cattle. He was maybe 6 years old when he first encountered a rather nondescript concrete building out in the middle of nowhere. But gazing at it through the wonderment of youth, Gordy’s imagination ran wild. “I was born and raised without a permanent structure. We lived in a shack. To find a permanent structure, you were like, ‘Wow! Concrete!’ It was a favorite play place. When you’re 6 or 7 years old, that’s a fort.” It was worth riding his horse 8 miles to play all day on what he later learned was an abandoned uranium mill where ore was “concentrated,” or enriched.
“From being raised living in a shack and being covered by the Bennett Freeze where we couldn’t put anything down permanent, you saw a permanent structure way out here in the boonies and you’re hanging around it, you’re crawling on it, you’re climbing on it, and you’re looking at it – maybe you could just live out here in this permanent structure. You don’t know that it’s got radiation in it and it’s got uranium tailings in it,” he said.
The mill, which began operations in the mid-1950s, went unnoticed until last year when Gordy made mention of it to the grassroots group, Forgotten People. Together they brought it and other sites to the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Division of Superfund.
U.S. EPA and Navajo Nation EPA will conduct a meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday at Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites in Tuba City to reveal their findings on the Cameron mill and the Hosteen Nez abandoned uranium mine site in Coalmine Chapter. They also will discuss their efforts to address abandoned uranium mines and safe drinking water in Western Navajo Agency.
Gordy, now 42, said his dad first told him about the mill. “Back in these rocks you’ll see a bunch of makeshift camp sites,” he said during a recent tour. “They were all the campsites for the Navajo people that worked here. From what my mom and dad told me, this was a real Sodom and Gomorrah out here. There was people making money, 24-hour parties. But everybody left just as fast as they showed up.”
Weston Solutions Inc. was contracted by EPA to do a site screen of the mill, located on state of Arizona land bordering the Navajo Nation. Radiation levels ranged from around 50,000 counts per minute for the bare cement foundation to 1 million counts per minute from the small dirt piles atop the foundation, compared to the average background reading of less than 16,000. The Little Colorado River Basin runs through the eastern edge of the mill site.
“Years ago, I’d come out here in the summertime and it would be like 100 degrees. You’re riding your horse down the river and you say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go over to this fort over here and hang out a little bit,” Gordy said. “You’d wrap your rope around some of these structures out here, and you’d go into this cave-looking thing” inside the mill. “It was really cool, and you’d sleep in here and take an evening nap. It was so awesome.”
The “cave” is a portion of the 100 foot-by-50 foot mill that is still intact. It has a square hole in the ceiling and a vehicle license plate from the 1950s cemented into the wall.
“When you ride around out here, you carry your lariat all the time. You come out here and you’ve got that little hole in the concrete with maybe a 20 foot drop. We used to anchor the rope to the horse and crawl in and out of that hole or pull people out, pretending we were doing a rescue,” Gordy said.
Sometimes he and his cousins would ride out together and tie off their horses to a piece of rebar sticking out of the concrete. They’d take a run a go and jump into the blown sand piles in front of the building or lead their horses up and down the chute, which still today is lined with highly radioactive waste.
About a quarter to a half mile away from the mill there’s one of many Western Nuclear Inc. markers and as Gordy said, “probably 20 or 30 core markers sticking out of the ground that are halfway rotted. From what I understand these were drilled test holes. They ran around all over the place drilling holes.” The markers have metal plates with numbers on them. “They were taking readings off of each sample that they took and numbering them,” he said.
Near the wetland area, Gordy and Marsha Monestersky, program director for Forgotten People, found the remains of a campfire and an old beer can. “Over the years people have come out here to just party. How many people have passed out in these uranium tailings?” Gordy said. And then pointing to a waste pile, “You see those little white mounds over there? Those things maxed out EPA’s Geiger counter.”
Though he never worked in the uranium mines or the mill, Gordy wonders what will happen if he gets sick. He questions the 1971 cutoff date to qualify for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. “They left the mines open where I hung around and played in. How can they close the date on it when they’ve got uranium tailings still laying all over the place? I would think if you’re going to close the compensation dates, you would close them after you got all of the uranium sites closed and controlled. Here we are, 2011, and we’re still exposed to it.
“My mom come up with this brain tumor type of brain cancer. We don’t know where she got it – living out here possibly. The thing with living out here is, how do you separate what illnesses are coming from your environment and what illnesses are normal? With the dust blowing and everything out here, who knows what you could catch,” he said.
Doug Brugge, Ph.D., M.S., professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, reviewed three site screen reports for Forgotten People. The radiation levels for the Section 9 lease, which includes the mill, are both higher and appear to be spread out over a larger geographic area, he said.
“Mills tend to be built near water. I think the EPA report acknowledges that contamination could be moving from the site into the river. That seemed to be EPA’s primary concern in terms of exposure both to the environment and to people – the potential for contamination to get into the river,” Brugge said.
“My main question is what comes next, and is this enough evidence for EPA to do anything more, or are they going to write these off?” The mill’s close proximity to the Little Colorado River might be the strongest motivator for cleanup, he said, because the Little Colorado feeds into the Colorado River, which provides drinking water to millions of people from Arizona to California.
Monestersky said Forgotten People appreciates EPA’s prompt response in investigating the southeast Cameron uranium concentrating mill, the open pits and tailings piles, and Goldsprings mines. “Forgotten People respectfully requests the U.S. EPA do everything necessary to protect wetlands and water sources, and conduct radiation surveys beyond the borders of these sites to assess levels of contamination to downstream users on the Little Colorado River and contamination of water resources throughout the region.
“How could the U.S. EPA and other agencies miss the southeast Cameron uranium concentrating mill when they did aerial flyovers to assess contamination?” she said.