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Lethal Legacy? Abandoned uranium mines bring health worries

Lethal Legacy? Abandoned uranium mines bring health worries

by Jomay Steen, Journal Staff Writer, Rapid City Journal
BUFFALO -- In a series of bluffs and buttes near the Montana and South Dakota border are the leavings of the atomic age.

A decade after the United States dropped atomic bombs at Hiro- shima and Nagasaki, uranium mining claims were filed on the 65,000 acres of the North Cave Hills, South Cave Hills and Slim Buttes areas of Custer National Forest's Sioux Ranger District, about 100 miles north of Rapid City.
By 1965, the mining companies had closed operations, packed up offices and equipment and disappeared from the prairie.

Left behind and nearly forgotten were the 89 mined sites on national forest system land on the South Dakota portion of the Sioux Ranger District.

Harding County residents worry that the abandoned uranium mines might have caused a higher incidence of cancer in the area. But state health officials say their fears are unfounded.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service has taken steps to remediate problems caused by the mines in the North Cave Hills and has asked one of the mining companies to help with clean up.

Conscious of cancer

On March 15, abandoned uranium mines were the last things on the minds of Buffalo residents.

Calving and lambing seasons were in full force. Many area ranchers and farmers had broken away from barnyard chores to drive to Harding County Courthouse in Buffalo to renew land leases.

Linda Stephens greeted friends at a local diner and talked about the disappearance of an area businessman on his way to Rapid City. Part owner and publisher of the Nation's Center News, Stephens eventually turned the talk to health.

"Talk to anyone here, and they have a brother, uncle or cousin who has cancer," Stephens said. She, too, has cancer.

Eleven cases of rare brain tumors have been diagnosed in Harding County in the past decade.

In the past 24 months, Stephens, Krystyna Nible, Janice Peck and Frank Clark were diagnosed with brain tumors.

Doctors told Stephens, 60, and Krystyna Nible, 9, that they had pituitary tumors.

Rose Blake, 50, of Camp Crook and LaQueta "Lucky" Teigen, 52, of Buffalo were diagnosed with pituitary tumors about 10 years ago and survived through surgery and treatment. The four females with pituitary tumors were the first in their families to develop brain tumors.

Cancer may be caused by external factors, such as tobacco, chemicals, radiation and infectious organisms, or internal factors such as hormones, age, immune conditions and mutations that occur from metabolism, the American Cancer Society says.

These factors may act together or in sequence to cause cancer. Ten or more years often pass between exposure to external factors and detectable cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

A letter from South Dakota Department of Health officials stated that pituitary tumors occur in one in 10,000 people at autopsy.

Stephens said that Harding County, with a population of 1,500 people, has four pituitary cancer patients.

Deena Nible, 36, received the devastating news that her daughter had a brain tumor in October 2003.

"It just rips you in two," she said.

The youngest of Deena and Jeff Nible's four children, Krystyna experienced severe headaches, vision problems and frequent urination.

Mission Statement

"Defenders of the Black Hills is a group of volunteers without racial or tribal boundaries whose mission is to preserve, protect, and restore the environment of the 1851 and 1868 Treaty Territories, Treaties made between the United States and the Great Sioux Nation."

Speaking about radioactive fallout, the late President John F. Kennedy said,

"Even then, the number of children and grandchildren with cancer in their bones, with leukemia in their blood, or with poison in their lungs might seem statistically small to some, in comparison with natural health hazards. But this is not a natural health hazard and it is not a statistical issue. The loss of even one human life, or the malformation of even one baby who may be born long after we are gone, should be of concern to us all. Our children and grandchildren are not merely statistics toward which we can be indifferent."

July 26, 1963 upon signing the ban on above ground nuclear tests