MOAB, Utah — Perched beside a lazy bend of the Colorado River, between a national park and a wildlife preserve, ten million tons of uranium mill waste are slowly and steadily leaking contaminants into one of the nation’s most valuable waterways.
—Frank Clifford, Environmental Writer, Los Angeles Times. “Leaking Nuclear Waste Imperils Colorado River,” 4/20/97
Once I thought that the Colorado River was vested with an intense self absorbing energy — not violent by intent but destructive to whatever it encountered along the way to the sea. But that has changed… since it has been locked, blocked and regulated into a degree of submission.
Still there is a power there greater than that of the dam builders. Look at the canyon. The river, by sheer will, has cut, ground, and tore through solid stone and it goes on doing so to this day. I don’t have the facts in front of me, but with all the winding in and about it must go on for a thousand miles, beginning above Moab, running down through New Mexico and Arizona.
Most famous is the Grand Canyon, above that the Glen Canyon Recreational Lake, Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point (where Edward Abbey’s ashes were returned to the river) and Arches National Monument. But really it is all one canyon made by one river.
The first name given to that river by the colonizers was not the Colorado. No. It was the Tizon. That was the name given by the first Spaniards to come upon it in the early 15th century. The river of torches. They said that bands of Aztec came up the river in the evenings along a trade route. These Aztecs were carrying torches of burning wood. Tizon. Torches. The river Tizon.
I do not know the Dinne or the Moqui name for this river. Although I do know that these people lived along side of it. I have seen the Moqui houses up in the cliffs. I have heard the Dinne story about how when they came to this valley (where Moab would be built thousands of years later) the Moquis were already living there. They were a tiny people. Smaller than the Dinne. They got into a fight with the Dinne and the Dinne ran them into the river. It was spring. The river was high and the current was fast. The Moquis didn’t make it to the other side… not many anyway.
This is the story I heard. Whether it is true or not I don’t know. I believe it to be true.
The LA Times goes on to say that there is a 130-acre mound of radioactive toxic slop sitting on the river bank. They don’t know yet what all is in it but they do know that the levels of the following far exceed state standards: uranium, radium, ammonia, nitrate, manganese, molybdenum, vanadium, selenium and mercury. 130 acres of it moving steadily into the river while the NRC ponders whatever can be done about this mess. Not much, they seem to think.
That mill (owned by Atlas Minerals) originally covered 200 acres and processed 500 tons of uranium ore a day in its prime. Atlas shut it down in 1988. Joe Holonich from the NRC is quoted as saying, “They buried everything eventually — buildings, chemicals, you name it — too hot to sell for scrap.”
Pushed a little dirt over it. That's what they did. Plain and simple. This stuff they plowed under is of course in excess of the 130-acre slag heap sitting on the river bank. They probably would have buried that too, but it was too big.
I try to think back to when we started to know that something was not right. And then when we started to know for sure. Certainly we did not know in 1956 at the Grand Opening of Atlas Mill. It was open to the public. The whole town of Moab turned up. This was the biggest thing since Jeff Chandler and Rock Hudson were here to make that “Son of Cochise” movie. This was big. Dorrie Melich’s entire Girl Scout troop went, me included. We were all dressed up in those ugly green skirts, white blouses, bow-ties, silly hats and a row of badges pinned to our shirts for bedmaking, cooking, housekeeping — skills all girls need to excel in.
But that is not the point. My point is uranium… bright yellow… sunflower yellow… sun yellow. We saw the whole process, starting with the raw ore (a pile of gray rock) and through the whole extraction process and how it came out at the other end as this concentrated yellow stuff which then went onto a train. A train that ran just to Atlas. No further. Not to Moab. Not for anybody to ride to visit grandma. No. This train was for yellow concentrated uranium going off to build the bomb.
See, we lived in Moab. We were in on the ground floor of the new Atomic Age. So they used to say. Moab was “The Uranium Capitol of the World.” That's how we got to be the only Girl Scout troop in America standing just a few feet from a conveyor belt carrying this substance that right then was more valuable than gold, more powerful than 10,000 old-fashioned bombs. Just one little fist full of that yellow stuff and you could rule the world — radiate power through flashing yellow eyes, shining yellow teeth, stick out your yellow cake tongue and wave your fat yellow weenie at the USSR. The Atomic Man Rules the World.
Oh yes. We were all high on the power of it. Before that, Moab grew peaches. Now we made bombs.
Now I don’t recall anyone saying there was any danger to us. Only the Russians were in trouble. Because it took more than uranium to make a bomb. It took a chain reaction. Uranium itself could not explode. We knew that.
We did not know the rest of it. Of course the men who ran the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) they did know so they would not have sent their kids on a tour of the Atlas mill or let their boys go down to work the mines.
The State of Utah knew. I was processed into the State Hospital four years later as a paranoid schizo or a sociopathic-acting-out-character-disorder depending on which Doctor was diagnosing, and my moods. I was there six months. I was given several thyroid tests. I asked why, but got no answer. I was the only person on the ward who got them. I was the only person from Moab.
Later I learned that the first place radiation toxicity manifests itself is in the thyroid. What were they looking for? What did they find?
I also know that the State of Utah secretly monitored the concentration of radiation in milk in St. George, Utah, after they discovered leukemia clusters in southern Utah. That radiation came from the Nevada test sites where they routinely waited for the wind to blow towards Utah (away from LA/Las Vegas) to set off their atomic bombs.
Right. I think the first I knew it was dangerous was one night in the bar at La Sal Junction. The drunk superintendent from the mine told me this: “Get your old man out of that shaft. If you care about him. Get him out.”
“Because it will kill him. Sure as shit. That stuff is worse than gas. Worse than coal. It’s dangerous to breathe down there.”
“What will kill you?”
“Uranium, girl. Uranium kills you. You are breathing it, eating it and covered in it and it is poison . Sure as shit.”
That was the first I heard of it. That was 15 years from the Grand Opening of Atlas. The uranium boom was dying then. It was almost over.
We moved away. I stumbled on an entire set of Atomic Scientist journals in the Berkeley dump. They dated back to the 1940s. I couldn’t believe it. It was all known from the start. They knew. They always knew. About radiation. What it does. Kills people. Bad stuff.
It made me sick to my stomach.
Think about it. Our couch was radioactive. My daddy put a Geiger counter on it now and then as a joke. The needle shot into the red. It was hot hot hot. He would laugh and say, “Shit, I don’t have to go out prospecting. I can sell this couch. We’ll be rich!”
Stucco walls were made out of radioactive slag. The foundations of houses were built on concrete made from slag. The city park was built on landfill made from radioactive slag.
My father died of bone cancer when he was 62. I knew then what killed him. By then I truly knew. I told my mother. She thought it was absurd. Uranium provided a good income for many families for many years. No way would the government have lied to us about the safety.
Then the day came for my mother when she knew. She was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer a few years back. Right now the cancer is just sitting there waiting, the Doctor said. Not growing. Not going. “If I’m lucky I’ll die of something else,” my mother says with a nervy little laugh. This kind of cancer can only be caused by exposure to nuclear radiation. It makes your bones into Swiss cheese. Unpleasant way to die. A mass of tissues and organs with no viable support. A sort of living, or more accurately, dying puddle of a person. Nasty, it is.
And then she knew it.
She wrote her children a letter. She said she got cancer because we lived in Moab. Because our house was radioactive. She apologized for whatever misery that decision, to move to Moab, might bring to us. Because, she said, we did not know what kind of problems we might get from it. Or our children or their children.
Of course she had nothing to be sorry for. She hated Moab from the very first day. She was crying when we dropped off the rim and down to the Colorado. She thought it was ugly. Her face was shot through with grief.
I loved it. It would be years before I felt those walls creeping in over me. I climbed barefoot over the cliffs and walked in places where no one had walked in years. No footprints in the sand. No sound of cars. Just the sound of the mighty earth breathing in and out. The muttering of the old river.
I was ecstatic. Moab was inside of me. Still is. Beautiful. Toxic. Radiant. Whatever I am I could not have become without Moab inside of me.
Now it is touristy town. The boom is dead. The uranium is gone. Tourism is the thing now. Ripping around on bicycles over the slick rocks, rock climbing, European tours, European western movie-makers filming spaghetti westerns.
Lots of people know where Moab is nowadays. Almost everybody I talk to knows the name. And they like Moab. They love it. They know nothing about the uranium years. They don’t identify Moab with uranium. They identify it with Arches or Canyonlands.
I think they killed my dad. Those same creeps that are killing the river. I think they might have killed my mother too. Now, shouldn’t we be mad about it? They deliberately withheld information. The AEC. The State. The Federal Government. They ripped out the uranium and left the miners and the mill workers to die of cancer in their 50s and early 60s. And they did. They did die. Those men are all gone now. They don’t sit in the Western Grill on Main Street and reminisce about the old days in the desert or talk of the rotten younger generation like their own fathers did. They are dead.
They would have died anyway. Maybe a little later but just the same. Well, that is true of all the murdered, isn’t it? They were murdered weren’t they? If I pay you to ingest something I know will kill you and you die, didn’t I murder you?
The good thing for the murderers is that you don’t die right away. The killer can be long gone down the road saying, “Hey man I wasn’t even there. Can’t be my fault. I haven’t even seen that dude since way back!” No it takes a long time. It has to seep into every cell deep into the bone marrow, then it has to work its way out again until everything in you is death personified. Bruised ugly cancer so full of decay and pus and godawful pain.
Sometimes I think I can’t stand to watch another person die of cancer. And if it happens to me I won’t wait it out. No way to take all that slow evil pain… losing your life an inch at a time. No more.
And the river is not so mighty anymore. Dam it up. Sell it off a gallon at a time. And pour a lot of radioactive debris into it.
We should be mad. But we’re not. Because we expected it. I expected it at least. By the time I finally knew. I expected that kind of thing from the Corporate State.
But people like my mom and dad. They didn’t expect it. They were the innocents. The true innocents. They believed they lived in the only free country in the world. The best of all possible worlds. The government was a democracy. Elected by them. Working for them. Representing them.
And those people were ripped off.
No, I ain’t mad, except for them; for what happened to them and the river. So one day I think we ought to drink a bottle of Jack Daniels; go get us some of the innocent sons of the men who ran the AEC and inject some plutonium or some Strontium 90 into them. See what it does to them. See how long it takes the ugly worm of cancer to eat to the marrow of the bone and work its way back out again. See if they suffer the way I saw my father suffer. No mercy killing either. Let’s have them feel every last awful second of that sleepless death. Let’s see if they wake up sharply at night like my mother does. Haunted by her future, born so many years in the past. The Atomic past. The nuclear future.