Home Campaigns Mining continued - Lethal Legacy? Abandoned uranium mines bring health worries

continued - 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.
On Oct. 29, Krystyna underwent six hours of surgery by a nine-doctor surgical team at Children's Hospital in Denver. The team removed a third of the tumor. Krystyna began six weeks of radiation in December 2003.

"They didn't say that anything environmental had caused it," her mother said.

The doctors explained to the family that a sac encases the pituitary gland at birth, and the sac breaks as the child grows. The cells that remain from the sac may develop into a tumor later in life, Nible said.

But Nible said her daughter's doctors did think it was unusual that several people in the same town would be diagnosed in the same year.

"It doesn't happen very often," she said.

In September 2003, Peck underwent surgery at St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver for acoustic schwannoma, a walnut-sized tumor lodged in the canal of her right ear.

Peck, 68, lived most of her life in the Reva area before marrying Arlie Peck and moving to his ranch 30 years ago. "We lived real close to the Slim Buttes area and the uranium mines," Peck said.

Retiring to Sturgis in 2001, she said she experienced pin-prickling sensations on her face, hearing loss and severe loss of balance before seeing a doctor. Healthy for most of her life, it was a shock to learn the seriousness of her ailments.

"A brain tumor is a surprise," she said.

Peck's doctors wouldn't speculate about what had caused her tumor, saying there were a number of external factors that may have contributed to her illness, including two serious concussions Peck had at an earlier age, she said.

"If one thing doesn't get you, something else will," Peck said.

Stephens grew up in Harding County near Ralph and has lived the majority of her life in Buffalo.

On July 10, 2004, Stephens underwent 28 days of radiation at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The treatments arrested the growth of her tumor, a condition she had lived with undetected for nearly 20 years.

Stephens believes the abandoned uranium mines about 25 miles north of Buffalo may be the culprits in Harding County's health problems. She said if she were to draw a circle on a map within a 65-mile radius from the mining sites, the number of people with cancer abounds.

"In the late '50s and early '60s, everyone out here thought they would get rich if they had uranium on their property," Stephens said.

Stephens said a uranium processing plant was across the border in Griffin, N.D., between Rhame and Bowman. Locals dug out the uranium and hauled the radioactive material to Griffin in open trucks and stock trailers.

"They dug holes all over. They cut the top off Ludlow Hill," she said.

While Stephens was at Mayo Clinic, one of the first questions she asked her neurologist, Dr. Joon Uhm, was the cause that would have placed four people in different age groups, different careers and lifestyles with this particular type of cancer.

"His reply was, ?uranium,'" Stephens said.

Mining history

In 1962, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission pushed for major uranium mining operations throughout the nation, including South Dakota.

Uranium was mined in Harding and Fall River counties. The state ranked as the nation's sixth-largest uranium producer in 1964 and 1965. South Dakota produced 1 million tons of uranium ore and 3 million pounds of processed uranium between 1951 and 1973.

According to Laurie Walters-Clark, on-scene coordinator of the U.S.F.S. Sioux Ranger District, unrestricted mining was permitted under the General Mining Laws and Public Law 357 and required no restoration. Active mining of the Slim Buttes and Cave Hills occurred from 1962 through 1964.

Prospecting was conducted by bulldozer cuts, backhoe, rim cutting and drilling. Bulldozers removed dirt to allow access to the uranium-bearing lignite coal beds, which, in places, were 80 feet below the surface. During the mining, much of the spoils were piled on the outer edges of the pits. Today, the erosive spoils remain piled on the pit floors and rims.

The uranium mining at the Riley Pass site in the North Cave Hills left behind areas with elevated radiation and heavy metal levels both in the mine area and the sediments, which are eroding.

"Elevated levels of arsenic, boron, molybdenum and selenium are in the exposed spoils," Walters-Clark said.

Reclamation effort

In 1989, heavy erosion spurred the Forest Service to build five catch basins to trap sediment washing down from the former mine sites. By the next year, the Forest Service removed more than 6,700 cubic yards of sediment from the basins. With an estimated $2 million price tag, Forest Service officials decided against further reclamation efforts.

Seven years later, Custer National Forest officials began reviewing soils tested in 1990 in the area to qualify for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency. The project qualified for CERCLA, which provides reclamation funds to restore inactive hazardous waste sites.

Results from the soil analyses showed 13 bluffs as sources of hazardous substances. The hazardous materials testing greater than three times the normal levels included arsenic, molybdenum, thorium, total uranium, radium 226 and uranium 235.

As part of the CERCLA process, the Forest Service tracked Kerr-McGee as one of the businesses responsible for mining the area and abandoning eight bluffs considered hazardous.

In 1972, Kerr-McGee paid for construction of dikes and dams at two locations and moved a segment of road at Riley Pass. In 2002, Forest Service officials negotiated with Kerr-McGee to clean out the sediment ponds. Kerr-McGee has declined to help with further cleanup, and no law requires them to do so.

This year, the Forest Service plans to clean the sediment ponds and build a catch basin and diversion ditch. It will also release an engineering evaluation providing recommendations for reclamation and cost analysis later this month, Walters-Clark said.

Expected to be finalized this summer, the report will be available for public review and comment at Harding County Courthouse for at least 60 days.

The Forest Service will continue to work with representatives from Harding County and other interested groups regarding status and restoration activities in the project area.

Worried about water

Laurel Foust's ranch is three miles from the North Cave Hills and the open uranium mines there.

Like Stephens, she suspects that contaminants have reached her livestock through wind and water systems. They may also have been a factor in her husband's cancer.

Richard Foust was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1993.

He died in 1994 at age 44.

"He lived here all of his life," Foust said.

Growing up close to the rugged terrain, he spent a great deal of his life hunting, riding and exploring the hills, she said.

She acknowledges that her husband came into contact with the defoliant Agent Orange while serving in the military in Vietnam. But Foust and her children continue to drink bottled water because of her concerns about the water that comes from the taps.

"People have spent thousands of dollars on water lines and wells here so their livestock won't have to drink the water out of dams and creeks," she said.

Drinking from water sources that has runoff affects the livestock, Foust said.

The animals develop copper deficiency, which can cause spontaneous abortions in cattle.

Cattle's hair turns white after drinking the water for about six years, Foust said.

A neighbor, Randy Feist, 47, said loss of livestock production and copper deficiencies led him to suspect something was wrong with his water.

On his ranch 2-1/2 miles from the North Cave Hills, Feist had his water tested and discovered bad news.

"There's arsenic in our drainages," he said.

Before environmental and reclamation laws enacted in the '70s, mining companies were legally allowed to abandon the sites without sealing or reclamation of any kind. These abandoned sites have undergone natural erosion from 41 years of wind, rain and snow, he said.

"There were no reclamation laws when these companies did the mining," he said.

Feist said contaminants may have caused his two sisters' and a brother's health problems.

"Half of my siblings have thyroid problems. It's one of the first symptoms of radiation poisoning," Feist said.

He has also had his share of health problems. Last September, doctors removed a cancerous kidney from the father of four children.

Feist has since recovered after surgery.

But at night, when thoughts of his and his wife's relatives dying of cancer chases away sleep, he wonders about his own family.

"What am I subjecting my kids to?" he asked.

Skeptical response

South Dakota State University Extension beef specialist Trey Patterson said graying or losing color in the hides of cattle is a symptom of copper deficiency.

But he said copper deficiency in cattle is a common ailment in western South Dakota and not a symptom of radiation poisoning.

Patterson said that high concentrations of sulfur in water, molybdenum in feed and iron in water or feed or both lead to this condition.

"It is consistent with what I've seen on ranches in southwestern South Dakota," Patterson said.

State veterinarian Sam Holland, head of the South Dakota Animal Industry Board, said animals would exhibit the same symptoms as people if exposed to acute radiation ? bloody stools, welts and hair loss.

But Holland said in his 18 years as assistant and state veterinarian he has never treated animals sickened from radiation poisoning because of hazardous materials.

However, it isn't the first time Holland has dealt with questions about livestock being exposed to uranium. As many as 100 uranium mines operated from the 1950s through the 1970s in the Edgemont area. Years after the mines closed, Fall River County livestock owners complained of animals sickened by runoff and contamination from those mines. None of the complaints was ever substantiated, he said.

"The anecdotal records never matched what was actually reported to us," Holland said.

No safe level

But for humans, there is no safe level of exposure to radiation, according to Diane D'Arrigo of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a private environmental organization in Washington, D.C.

Low levels of radiation damage tissues, cells and other vital functions, causing cell death, genetic mutations, cancers, leukemia, birth defects and reproductive, immune and endocrine system disorders, D'Arrigo said.

The endocrine system includes the thyroid and pituitary glands.

"Every amount of radiation increases all these health effects," D'Arrigo said.

The organization's Web site, www.nirs.org, says long-term exposure to low levels of radiation can be more dangerous than short exposures to high levels.

D'Arrigo said federal officials who write regulations are unduly influenced by the energy industry, which gives a skewed perspective of what is acceptable.

"The science at any level will tell you any exposure is an increased risk," D'Arrigo said.

Cindy Folkers, energy and radiation spokeswoman at Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said depleted uranium broken down into small particles can be suspended in the air and inhaled or ingested.

Once absorbed into the blood stream, the particles are deposited mostly into bone and kidneys. Most of what is deposited in the kidneys cycles out in urine, but it can remain in bone for years, Folkers said.

"It collects around the DNA molecules and muscles, and the body thinks it is potassium. This is a problem," Folkers said.

She said that although companies took the uranium ore, what was left behind is still toxic and includes thoriums and heavy metals such as mercury or lead.

"Meanwhile, people stuck in the community are dying," Folkers said.

But statistics from the South Dakota Cancer Registry don't back up D'Arrigo and Folkers' claims about cancer links to exposure to hazardous contaminants from the uranium mines in Harding County, state officials said.

Barb Buhler, information officer at the South Dakota Department of Health, said sparsely populated areas such as Harding County are simply too small for statistics to prove a cause.

"The numbers are just not there," Buhler said.

She checked into Harding County cancer rates listed in the South Dakota Cancer Registry. From 1996-2001, 21 cancer cases were reported in Harding County, an average of four per year.

But Buhler said the age- adjusted cancer rate in Harding County was much lower than state and national rates.

During 2001, South Dakota had 40 cases of thyroid cancers, the cancer most associated with uranium and fallout. The age-adjusted state rate was less than the national rate, Buhler said.

But people such as Randy Feist are convinced there is a link between the local cancer victims and the uranium mines.

Feist said most people in Harding County ? and especially in his neighborhood ? don't expect to live without their names going into the cancer registry at some point in their lives.

"When we die, we're going to die of cancer," he said.

Contact Jomay Steen at 394-8418 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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