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Radiation Exposure

Uranium miners push an ore cart in 1953 at the Kerr McGee mine on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Miners, millers and ore haulers who were exposed to uranium prior to 1972 may be eligible for federal health benefits. 

Four times a year, Angela Hays Carey visits Wyoming to find former uranium workers who could qualify for federal health benefits.

Every year, she finds some who didn’t know about federal compensation and health care support, or who never realized their illness was tied to exposure decades ago from their work in uranium mining, milling or transportation of ore.

“Until you are buying a car you don’t notice the car ads,” she said. “Until you get sick, you don’t think ‘Hey, maybe my uranium days caused this.’”

Hays Carey is the community outreach manager for Nuclear Care Partners, a group that assists former uranium and atomic workers with the red tape of federal benefits from the Energy Employee Occupational Illness Program Act and offers in-home care for former atomic workers who suffered serious illness from exposure.

The group is hosting a luncheon at noon Monday at the Ramkota Hotel in Casper to educate former workers on available benefits. The luncheon will cover how to file a claim and how to access benefits, from facing a denied claim to covering out-of-pocket expenses.

Cold war mining

There are hundreds of Wyomingites who worked in uranium mining, milling and ore hauling prior to 1972, and as such, may qualify for one of the branches of coverage offered by the federal government. The benefits are tied to federal employment, but not directly. Most miners and atomic workers pre-1972 were essentially subcontractors for the federal government, she said.

The federal government has a number of compensation programs for former workers whose sickness today is tied to the Cold War arms race and the atomic bomb studies that fueled the uranium and atomic industries. A number of initiatives have attempted to secure compensation for uranium miners, millers and ore haulers following the 1972 cutoff.

There are nearly 30,000 former workers receiving benefits nationally, and more than 300 Wyomingites who have filed claims, Hays Carey said.

But every year there are more workers that Hays Carey runs into in Wyoming. She is based in Idaho, but travels to Wyoming for programs such as Wednesday’s luncheon in Casper.

Many of the workers she meets are aware of the benefits but have been denied.

“That’s usually what I deal with when I come,” she said. “They didn’t file correctly; they didn’t turn in the right information. I love to look at those because it is easy to get the right information.”

Lying in wait

The health concerns tied to exposure to radiation and other toxins can be severe, but they can also lie dormant. People get older, they have health issues and they don’t always realize that the root cause could be from their past jobs, Hays Carey said.

Someone will come down with pneumonia and their lungs can’t properly fight it. That’s when the doctor may notice a more serious underlying issue.

“We adapt,” Hays Carey said. “We think we are growing old and then something happens.”

Chronic lung issues, cancer and fibrosis are among the most common illness tied to historic uranium mining, inhaling uranium decay products or repeated exposure to gamma radiation.

There are a handful of states where the mining, milling and ore hauling workers mostly resided. Wyoming is one of those states, along with Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. To a lesser extent, mining was also happening in North Dakota and Idaho.

Uranium extraction has taken place commercially in Wyoming since the 1950s. Mining today is less dangerous to workers than it once was as the process now involves dissolving the uranium in a solution underground that is then pumped to the surface. Once extracted, the uranium is processed and shipped out.

Uranium is not enriched in Wyoming. Enriched uranium is largely used in nuclear power today.

“Former atomic and uranium workers sacrificed their health to deter — and if necessary, fight — a nuclear war,” Hays Carey said in a statement. “They deserve our help in return. That’s why we’re having this event; to let them know we’re here for them and to answer their questions.”

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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