Tucson, Arizona
Sept. 29, 2007

Dear Dr. Helen Caldicott:

I was fortunate to attend a lecture of yours in the 1990s at a church in Northampton, MA. After talking about genetic mutations and cancer epidemics that will occur as a result of radiation poisoning, you asked people in the audience to raise their hands if they would commit themselves to putting an end to the nuclear age. I was one of the folks who raised my hand.

Since that time, I've moved to Tucson, Arizona. Tucson, like Phoenix (the sixth largest city in the US and growing), Las Vegas, Los Angeles and other cities in the Southwest receives water from the great Colorado River.

This past month my partner and I took a trip to Moab, Utah. I thought it might be a place that we could move to because the water table in Tucson is rapidly dropping. It appears that some public officials are in denial about the coming water crisis. Housing developments continue to flourish without a long-term water plan. I thought that since Moab is several hundred miles upstream on the Colorado River, perhaps the town would be a better source of water than at its near end in Tucson.

Our first day in Moab, we crossed over the Colorado River and spent the day in Arches National Park, an amazing place that is truly Gaia's sculpture garden of eroded rocks. On our second day in Moab, we visited Canyon Lands National Park. At the visitor's center, I noticed a flier that said that earlier that morning a ranger had given a lecture on the history of uranium mining in Moab.

I found the ranger and, since we missed the lecture, I asked him if he would go over the highlights of his talk with us. He was glad to do so, explaining to us that Moab was founded because of uranium mining. The beautiful arches and canyons were not even known to the American public until after the mines were opened. Today, the Moab area is supposedly an environmentalist paradise. People come from all over the world to hike the canyons, climb the arches, raft down the Colorado River, and bike along the mesas.

The park ranger was concerned because there had been talk that the uranium mines could open back up, because of the nuclear industry's resurgence, claiming it to be as a way to curb global warming gases released into the atmosphere. He said that some people in Moab want the mines to reopen because of the economic opportunities that could result, while other people are horrified at the thought of more uranium mining there because of the health risks.

“After all,” he said, “they haven't even cleaned up the uranium tailings from the Cold War era!” He asked me if I had seen the tons of uranium tailing that sit on the banks of the Colorado River. When I said, “No,” he informed me where to go to take a look at them. He said we couldn't miss them, as they are right past the Moab Bridge on the banks of Colorado River. The river is overdue for a 100-year flood, and the tailings are on the floodplain.

The next day we sought out the tailings, driving to Potlatch Road, where, on a kiosk we read about the history of the local uranium mine, and how the Atlas Mill went bankrupt. Now the uranium tailings are being controlled by the Department of Energy, which is responsible for the removal of the 16 million tons of tailings, from the banks of the Colorado River to Crescent Junction, Utah. As we looked out over the tailings, we watched a rain cloud begin pouring rain over them. The uncovered nuclear waste was blowing in the wind.

In Dr. Gordon Edward's essay "Uranium: Known Facts and Hidden Dangers," he writes, “As Marie Curie observed, 85 percent of the radioactivity in the ore remains behind in that crushed rock.” He says that the half-life of radioactivity is 80,000 years. He continues, “And as these tailings are left on the surface of the earth, they are blown by the wind, they are washed by the rain into the water systems, and they inevitably spread.”

The EPA allows for a certain amount of uranium in our water to be declared safe, natural, and legal. For Tucson 's water, the amount found in the 2006 annual report was 9.7 ppb (the Maximum Contaminant Level MCLs is 30 ppb). The report states that the source of the contamination is “natural deposits of Radium 226 & 228.”

Is there an acceptable level of exposure to atomic radiation? Dr. Edwards doesn't think so. He says, “There is no convincing scientific evidence that there is a safe dose of atomic radiation. The evidence points strongly to the opposite conclusion -- that every dose of atomic radiation administered to a large population, no matter how small it may be, will cause a corresponding increase in the numbers of cancers, genetic defects in offspring and other diseases.” If this is statement is true, then it appears that users of the Colorado River who are unlucky enough to ingest radioactive particles in their water are being poisoned by the legacy of the Cold War.

The uranium tailings on the floodplains of the Colorado River are analogous to the levees of New Orleans before Katrina, a Category Five hurricane, hit the Mississippi Delta. Visualizing such a catastrophe waiting to happen, I hear the voice of the late Western Shoshone spiritual leader, Corbin Harney, who said the following in an interview with us: “The water spoke to me and said that there will be a day when water looks like water, tastes like water, and smells like water, but no one will use it. The water told me that we abused the water and so now the water will no longer give us life.”

Unfortunately, this tragic visionary scenario came true for the people in New Mexico who were living on Rio Puerco River. On July 16, 1979, 1,100 tons of radioactive uranium mill tailings were released into the river when an earthen dam broke at United Nuclear Corporation at Church Rock. It was the worst nuclear disaster in US history. According to the atomicvigil.net website, it reads, “Contaminated water flowed into the Rio Puerco River, through the town of Gallup, New Mexico and westward through Holbrook at Winslow Arizona. Much of the contaminates remain untouched today, 30 years later.”

Twenty-six million people in the American Southwest use Colorado River water. Can we gather together medical experts and activists who could confront public officials? Can we create a people's movement to demand the cleanup of over a thousand uranium tailings sites in the Southwest and stop another generation of nuclear power? Curiously, the park ranger wasn't that concerned with the uranium levels in the water. His concern was about the arsenic levels, a chemical element used in the processing of uranium which is also leaking into the river from the radioactive tailings.

Corbin's life was ended by prostate cancer, a cancer known to be caused by uranium exposure. He spent his life trying to put an end to nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site. Perhaps the EPA considers his death “collateral damage” in the same way government officials consider the Nevada Test Site to be a “National Sacrifice Zone.” With such unethical thinking in place in the United States, is it any wonder why one out of six men is plagued with prostate cancer? Isn't it high time we stop our denial about our public health crisis caused by poisoned water?


For more information about the story of uranium please read, Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America's Experience with Atomic Radiation.

Thar's Uranium in Them Thar Hills by Jeff Rice