By Jerry D. Spangler and Donna Kemp Spangler
Deseret News staff writers
Behind patriarchal wrinkles, DeVar Shumway's eyes still twinkle as he recalls the glory days of uranium mining with his sons in southeastern Utah.
For decades, Shumway and his family burrowed deep into the uranium-rich Colorado Plateau, emerging triumphantly with tons of ore from which soft "yellowcake" would be extracted to feed the insatiable Cold War nuclear appetite of the U.S. government.
America may have won the Cold War, but a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Utah is left with a toxic legacy that has killed and sickened untold thousands of uranium miners and mill workers, contaminated water supplies for generations to come, and infected an otherwise stunning red-rock landscape with millions of tons of radioactive mill tailings that will cost American taxpayers billions of dollars to remove and bury safely out of sight.
Engineers say cleaning up the mill tailings at a single site, the defunct Atlas mill on the banks of the Colorado River just outside of Moab, could cost $300 million.
Those living in downstream states like Arizona and California say it is a small price to pay for safe drinking water. Survivors of the uranium frenzy scoff, recalling how they dumped countless tons of radioactive tailings into the Colorado, San Juan and La Plata rivers over the years. Piles of raw ore with unprofitable concentrations of uranium now lie beneath Lake Powell.
But families of those who did not survive the effects of prolonged exposure to radiation are not laughing. The dead and dying include miners and mill workers, innocent children who found mill tailings to be an inviting sand box, mothers who swept and dusted the wind-borne radioactive dust that filtered into their homes.
Chip Ward, an environmental activist and author of the book "Canaries on the Rim," argues the U.S. government officials knowingly and willfully sacrificed rural Utahns' health and safety in their urgency for nuclear superiority