Science versus Fiction: Have New Mexico Environmentalists Been Telling the Truth

While it may be a speculative musing as to whether Chris Shuey influences the editorial voices of the Gallup, and other New Mexico, media, it does appear Mr. Shuey may have built the foundation for his career on a uranium-related disaster. On the other hand, can someone blame an ambulance chaser for trying to make a living, too? For lack of a Three-Mile-Island episode in laid-back Gallup, New Mexico, Chris Shuey helped establish Southwest Research and Information Center into a vocal “expert” counterpoint against the uranium industry by apparently piggy-backing the 1979 uranium mill tailings spill near Church Rock. It was considered one of the worst tailings spills ever to have occurred in North America. We searched for conclusive evidence of deaths from this spill, but came up dry. Any official published report countering the preceding statement would be welcome.

Founded in 1971, the SRIC group established serious media credibility by milking the “dire and grotesque” human and livestock health consequences of that spill. But where was the actual damage in terms of human life and ecological disaster? We obtained the Executive Summary (dated October 1982) of an NMEID report, entitled, “The Church Rock Uranium Mill Tailings Spill: A Health and Environmental Assessment.” The authors of the report concluded, “To summarize, the spill affected the Puerco River valley environment for a brief period, but it had little or no effect on the health of local residents.” This report was issued three years after the “largest single release of liquid radioactive waste in the United States” (some 94 million gallons of acidified effluent and tailings slurry).

Some might speculate if the newspaper reports published in 1979 about this spill have the sound and smell of shoddy, yellow journalism. Others might marvel if those stories were more suited only for the most laughable supermarket tabloids. If one were to believe what was written then, the entire population of Gallup, New Mexico should have vanished off the face of the earth by now. Helping to fuel SRIC’s present-day hysteria over uranium mining, the environmental group has been arguing that HRI’s proposed uranium ISL project, near the Church Rock boundary of the Navajo reservation, would cause ground water contamination, perhaps with the same gravity of the previous tailings spill. In a sense they appear to be evoking bad memories of that spill. “He is very good at using the media,” sighed HRI’s Craig Bartels. “It is a few people who are very vocal,” explained Bartels as he described the SRIC’s opposition to his company’s ISL operation, “especially Chris Shuey, who touts himself as a journalist.”

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) did not put much stock in the local media’s sensationalism. The following was excerpted from their official report on the uranium tailings spill:

o “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in cooperation with the Church Rock community, found no documented human consumption of river water. Six Navajo individuals most likely exposed to spill contaminants were selected by the CDC and tested at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where they were found to have amounts of radioactive material normally found in the human body.” Recommendation: No further action required.

o “No public, private or municipal wells producing water for domestic use or livestock watering were affected by the spill. Wells drawing water solely from sandstone or limestone aquifers probably will never be affected by spill contaminants.”

o “Based on limited testing conducted by the CDC, the additional radiation risk from consumption of local livestock is small. The risk is about the same as the increased risk from cosmic radiation incurred by moving from sea level to 5000 feet in elevation.”

o “Computer modeling identified inhalation as the most significant pathway of radiation exposure to man from the spill. However, sampling of airborne dust along the Puerco River in Gallup soon after the spill showed only background levels of radioactivity. Moreover, one year following the spill, radioactivity levels in Puerco River sediments were reduced significantly due to dilution with uncontaminated river sediments.”

The Church Rock incident had been reported upon in the “Journal of Health Physics” (July 1984: Vol 47, No. 1) in an article entitled, “The Assessment of Human Exposure to Radionuclides from a Uranium Mill Tailings Release and Mine Dewatering Effluent.” This report was authored by two staff members of the U.S. Center for Disease Control two staff members of the New Mexico Health and Environment Department and a staff member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Two powerful conclusions were reached in this report:

“A review of state and federal regulations that pertain to the ingestion doses calculated from the Church Rock data indicated that no exposure limits were exceeded by the spill, or through chronic exposure to mine dewatering effluent.”

“In light of the currently known cancer incidence and mortality risks associated with levels of radionuclides measured at Church Rock and Gallup, we conclude that the exposed populations are too small for investigators to detect increases in cancer mortality with acceptable levels of statistical power. In fact, it may be misleading to establish a (cancer) registry with the foreknowledge of low probability of detecting mortality increases.”

In spite of these scientific reports, Chris Shuey continued to promote the “Puerco River Education” project as late as 1986. “The Gallup Independent” lent a hand in promoting this panic, and headlined a story, “Drink no Puerco water.” In a May 8th (1986) article, originating (conveniently) from Albuquerque, where Chris Shuey resides, the reporter wrote, “What little water there is in the Rio Puerco these days should not be consumed by man nor animal, according to the Southwest Research and Information Center of Albuquerque.”

Perhaps to strengthen his expertise as a health authority, Mr. Shuey pursued a Masters degree in Public Health at the University of New Mexico, across the street from SRIC’s headquarters. In his thesis, Shuey authored an integral review of the literature for “Biomarkers of Kidney Injury – Challenges for Uranium Exposure Studies” (submitted on April 29, 2002). After presenting this paper, Shuey emerged with the unique assertion that uranium leads to kidney cancers.

On its website, the American Cancer Society lists smoking, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle as the primary risk factors which increase one’s chances in getting kidney cancer (renal cell carcinoma). Occupation exposure to certain chemicals can also increase risk. Scientific studies found they could include: asbestos, cadmium (a type of metal), some herbicides, benzene, and organic solvents, particularly trichloroethylene. There is no mention by the American Cancer Society of uranium exposure leading to kidney cancer. Cadmium is another story, however.

The problem with first reaching a conclusion and then researching the facts to confirm your preconceived notion negates the scientific process. For example, Shuey dances around the issue of cadmium throughout his report, but fails to correlate household trash burning with the dangers of dioxins and cadmium when it comes to kidney-related problems and possible cancers. It appears Shuey may have failed to include the largest single source of toxic air emissions, which occurred in New Mexico prior to June 1, 2004, as a potential cause of renal toxicity: trash burning. At this time, New Mexico remains one of the few states, which has failed to ban the burning of electronic equipment. Such trash burning reportedly releases high concentrations of cadmium into the air. Could it be that something as obvious as cadmium concentrations might be the risk factor leading to kidney cancer instead of the purported uranium?

According to scientific researcher Dalway Swaine (Trace Elements in Coal, Butterworths: 1990), Cadmium is a toxic trace element in coal. Coal combustion contributes one tenth of the Cd to the atmosphere, the same as volcanoes and is considered to be a minor source of atmospheric cadmium. The problem might not be uranium at all, but other chemicals. However, fund raisers to reduce cadmium emissions, let alone anti-coal mining fund raisers, might not lead to sell-out celebrity dinners in Santa Fe.

It appears to be little surprise that SRIC seems to be less concerned with the public health than with their anti-nuclear agenda. Generally, the public reaction to an environmentalist is a warm and fuzzy feeling, “Wow, here is someone who truly cares about our future.” SRIC has closely worked with the third-world-like Navajo Nation, which instantly brings out the sympathy from any liberal-minded individual. Indeed, when interviewed Shuey, he was on the reservation in a meeting. His publicly displayed concern for the Navajo is commendable. At the same time, one must also ponder that if the most frequent cause of death among Navajo adults is alcohol abuse (often accompanied by driving), then why hasn’t SRIC worked more closely to reduce that public health issue?

Visit the outskirts of any reservation and you will find piles of beer, liquor and wine bottles. One littered stop near Crownpoint, New Mexico took on the personality of a landfill. Where are SRIC’s mercy cries for the abused Navajo? More Navajos have died as a result of automobile accidents while intoxicated than from fifty years of uranium mining. But then again, that may be of little concern to an environmentalist group. Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley, Jr. might make better use of Mr. Shuey by asking him, “Can you help us out with the alcohol problem, instead?”

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