Nuclear contamination and health risks remain throughout Colorado

When Jane Thompson moved away from Uravan in western Colorado decades ago, it was still a quiet company town of about 1,000 residents, all of whom had some connection to the uranium mill owned by Union Carbide.

This story is part of a national series looking at the legacy of nuclear weapons development and testing in the United States, and an expanding understanding of who was harmed. (Photo illustration by Tyler Gross)

“It was a great place to grow up,” said Thompson, who helps keep the town’s legacy alive as president of the Rimrocker Historical Society. Her grandfather was a miner until retirement. Her father was, too, after her parents married.  “They were the second-to-last to leave Uravan when they sent everybody out.”

Today, there is almost nothing left of Uravan, which was closed and leveled beginning in 1985. Former residents raised funds to preserve a boarding house and recreation center on the old town site, but Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 1999, burned them down in 2007 due to ongoing contamination fears. 

The company didn’t reimburse former residents, who today hold their annual August reunions on an old baseball field turned campground.

“You won’t find too many people that don’t think it was a shame, what they did,” said Thompson, who returned to the area in the 1990s and now lives in nearby Nucla. “I understand that everybody’s afraid of uranium, and everybody’s afraid of radioactivity, and nobody wants that liability. But it did seem like $229,000 up in flames was kind of a waste of money.”

To officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the former town as a federal Superfund site, the razing of Uravan’s last remaining buildings was one of the final phases in a “massive and challenging cleanup” that lasted 20 years and cost more than $120 million. 

The mining and milling of radium, uranium and vanadium at Uravan — the town got its name from the latter two minerals — lasted for more than 70 years. But the most famous of them were the several years beginning in 1942, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built facilities there to secretly process uranium as part of the Manhattan Project’s efforts to develop the world’s first atomic bomb.

Uravan and the surviving mining towns nearby, including Nucla and Naturita, are just a few of the many places in Colorado where residents were caught up in — and in many cases bore the risks of — the Manhattan Project’s sprint for the bomb and the nuclear arms race of the Cold War.

An estimated 14% of the uranium oxide, commonly known as “yellowcake,” produced for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in those years came from mines on the Colorado Plateau in the Four Corners region. Uranium sludge produced in Uravan and other “yellowcake towns” was further processed at a refinery in Grand Junction. The Rocky Flats facility northwest of Denver manufactured plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons for nearly 40 years before long-running environmental concerns and an FBI investigation of its operator led to its shutdown in 1992.

More recently, research has shown that parts of southern and western Colorado were significantly impacted by radioactive fallout from nuclear detonations at the Trinity Test Site in July 1945 and the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s.

It’s an atomic legacy that stretches across much of the American West, and one that’s received fresh attention in the wake of “Oppenheimer,” the 2023 blockbuster film about the bomb’s development.

“That’s put us a little bit in the limelight,” said Thompson. 

New scrutiny of the hazards of nuclear materials and radioactive waste, and the failure of federal government and private contractors to mitigate those risks, has followed in the wake of “Atomic Fallout,” an investigation published last year by The Missouri Independent, MuckRock and The Associated Press. Reviewing thousands of pages of federal documents obtained through open-records requests, reporters found that private companies and the government repeatedly downplayed the potential health risks of contamination in the St. Louis region, writing off health risks from exposed nuclear waste leaching into groundwater and neighborhood creeks as “slight,” “minimal” or “low-risk.”

The investigation put new, bipartisan urgency behind a push to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, a 1990 law that established a federal payout program for people who were impacted by atmospheric nuclear tests or employment in the uranium industry.

An expansion of the RECA program was passed by the U.S. Senate in July but was removed at the last minute from a congressional defense spending bill last month. Lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, have vowed to continue to champion it. The program is set to run out of funding in July.

“Coloradans developed serious health conditions from uranium mining and U.S. testing of nuclear weapons,” Hickenlooper wrote in an X post on Dec. 12. “There’s no excuse to deny these victims the compensation they rightfully deserve.”

RECA and its limitations

Since the federal government began issuing compensation payments under RECA in April 1992, more than 54,000 claims have been filed. Of those, more than 40,000 claims, or about 75%, have been approved, and roughly $2.6 billion had been paid out as of the end of 2022. Payouts for uranium workers is typically $100,000, and for “downwinders” — residents in close proximity to nuclear weapons test sites — $50,000.

Definitively proving that exposure to nuclear waste and radiation caused cancers and other diseases is difficult, but the RECA program doesn’t require that claimants prove causation. They only have to show that they or a relative had a qualifying disease after working or living in certain locations during specific time frames.

As passed by the Senate last year, the expansion of RECA would add eligibility for downwinders from five additional states, including Colorado, and the territory of Guam, and significantly expand eligible regions of three other states, potentially resulting in thousands of additional claimants and hundreds of millions in federal compensation.

With support from Missouri lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Josh Hawley and Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of St. Louis, the proposal would also expand compensation for the first time to workers and residents who were exposed to radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project in the St. Louis region.

Some of that waste made its way to Colorado, where it was dumped at the Cotter Corp.’s uranium mill in Cañon City. Nearly 6 million tons of nuclear waste in total are estimated to be buried underground near the old Cotter mill, which was declared a Superfund site shortly after ceasing operations in 1979.

“We call the moms in St. Louis, our sister city, because Cotter contaminated us both,” said Jeri Fry, a Cañon City resident and co-founder of Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste.

Fry’s father, Lynn Boughton, was chief chemist at Cotter’s Cañon City mill for more than 20 years, and turned whistleblower over concerns about the company’s dangerous practices, including contamination of groundwater on the south side of town. Following a Colorado Bureau of Investigation report alleging a pattern of misleading workers and record-keeping violations, Cotter reached a settlement agreement with Colorado in 1983.

Boughton died of radiation-induced lymphoma in 2001. Though tests found more than 600 times the normal level of radiation in his body, a workers’ compensation claim he filed took more than a decade to resolve. An attempted class-action lawsuit against Cotter was dismissed by a judge, and other lawsuits against the company were largely settled out of court.

A 2014 federal health assessment by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded that elevated levels of uranium and molybdenum in drinking water wells near the Cotter site “is a past, current and potential future public health hazard.”

“We had anecdotal evidence through the years,” Fry said. “The survey went out to try and put some legs under that, and some of the things that we found were lots of autoimmune diseases, lots of thyroid diseases, lots of birth defects, cancers, various things like that.”

In the 2000s, activists with Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste successfully fought a proposal to haul more radioactive waste to the Cotter mill site from New Jersey. But to the group’s dismay, cleanup of the site has proceeded slowly. A company that took over the property in 2018 told the EPA last year that it was insolvent and unable to meet its cleanup obligations, raising further concerns for nearby residents.

“​​These sites require active maintenance,” Fry said. “And if they don’t have enough to cover the maintenance of the sites, then we’re putting these communities at risk.”

Colorado downwinders?

RECA expansion could also allow, for the first time, people who lived in Colorado to file compensation claims as downwinders impacted by the atmospheric nuclear weapons tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site northwest of Las Vegas.

Fallout from the roughly 100 aboveground nuclear detonations carried out at the Nevada Test Site between 1951 and 1962 heavily impacted nearby communities like St. George, Utah, where elevated cancer rates were recorded for decades — even after the atmospheric tests ceased.

RECA’s downwinder compensation program covers only claimants who lived in some two dozen counties in eastern Nevada, southern Utah and northern Arizona during the period in question. But evidence has mounted that significant deposition of radioactive material occurred well beyond the downwinder area established by the original legislation — including in Colorado.

A landmark 1997 study by the National Cancer Institute found that exposure to high levels of iodine-131, a dangerous radioactive isotope and byproduct of nuclear fission that has been linked to increased rates of thyroid and other cancers, including at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster site in what is now Ukraine. 

Using historical measurements collected at monitoring stations combined with meteorological modeling, the study found especially high levels of radiation exposure across much of the Mountain West and the Great Plains. Additional research estimated that radioactive fallout from the Nevada Test Site could be linked to 49,000 additional cases of thyroid cancer, not to mention other cancers and illnesses. 

Colorado’s Gunnison County ranked in the top 1% of U.S. counties in estimated exposure, with an average dose of between 9 and 12 rads — or “radiation absorbed dose,” a measure of the amount of radiation absorbed by a material such as bodily tissue —  according to the study. Several other counties in southwestern Colorado experienced an average fallout dose of between 6 and 9 rads, ranking in the top 10%.

Another comprehensive analysis published last year, using even more precise weather modeling, largely corroborated those findings, indicating that Colorado experienced significant fallout from both the Nevada tests and the Manhattan Project’s Trinity test in New Mexico in July 1945.

“Our total deposition density estimates show that there are locations in New Mexico, and in other parts of the United States, including Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and Idaho, where radionuclide deposition reached levels larger than those we estimate in some counties covered by RECA,” the study’s authors wrote.

Unlike some other Western states, including Idaho and Montana, Colorado doesn’t have an organized downwinder community that has lobbied for RECA expansion. A spokesperson for Hickenlooper said his office has asked the Congressional Research Service to better quantify the impacts of a possible expansion on Coloradans, but wasn’t immediately able to identify specific communities or groups in the state who could be newly eligible for RECA under the proposal.

Along with former workers at the Rocky Flats plant, some ex-Cotter employees in Cañon City are covered by a separate federal compensation program, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, which was enacted in 2000.

After her father’s death, Fry’s mother successfully filed a claim through that program, and helped a handful of neighbors do the same. But it was a “tortured path,” Fry said, and awareness of contamination risks and compensation programs in the community remains low.

“A lot of people think that this is all old news,” she added. “A lot of people in our community if you ask them, they think, ‘Oh, I thought that was all cleaned up out there.’ Well, there’s 7 million tons of radioactive waste upwind and over the fence from Cañon City.

“And it lives in geologic time,” she added. “It’s going to outlive all of us.”

Comments are closed.