Echoes of the Atomic Age

Cancer kills fourteen aboriginal uranium workers

by Andrew Nikiforuk
Calgary Herald
Saturday, March 14, 1998


At the dawn of the nuclear age, Paul Baton and more than 30 Dene hunters and trappers innocently called uranium "the money rock."

Paid $3 a day by their white employers, the Dene hauled and ferried burlap sacks of the grimy ore from the world's first uranium mine at Port Radium, across the Northwest Territories to Fort McMurray.

Since then, at least 14 Dene who worked at the mine between 1942 and 1960 have died of lung, colon and kidney cancers, according to documents obtained through the N.W.T. Cancer Registry.

The Port Radium mine supplied the uranium to fuel the $2-billion effort to make the first atomic bombs.

"Before the mine, you never heard of cancer," said Baton, 83. "Now, lots of people have died of cancer."

Charged Cindy Gilday, chairwoman of the Deline's Uranium Committee: "In my mind it's a war crime that has been well hidden. The Dene were the first civilian victims of the war and are the last to be addressed."

The Dene, who say they were never told of uranium's hazards, will decide next weekend whether to sue or seek a settlement with the federal government.

Declassified U.S. documents show that the U.S. government, which was the buyer, and Ottawa, then the world's largest supplier, withheld health and safety information from miners, as well as natives.

Robie Chatterjee, head of health physics and risk with the Atomic Energy Control Board, responded to the news of the high incidence of cancers among the Dene by saying: "We were not aware of this (the cancers). It definitely deserves more investigation."

The federal government owned Eldorado Mining and Refining and regulated the uranium industry. It privatized the firm in 1988.

During the mine's heyday in the 1950s, many Dene slept on the ore, ate fish from water contaminated by radioactive tailings and breathed radioactive dust while on the barges, docks and portages.

More than a dozen men carried sacks of ore weighing more than 45 kilograms for 12 hours a day, six days a week, four months a year.

"That might be comparable to taking a chest X-ray every week for a year with an old machine," said Dr. David Bates, an environmental health analyst and chair of British Columbia's royal commission on uranium in 1980.

"The people at the time didn't speak English," said Shirley Baton-Modest, 33, a Deline resident. "I think my people were used as guinea-pigs. They were never informed of the dangers."

A 1991 federal aboriginal health survey found the Deline community reporting twice as much illness as any other Canadian aboriginal community.

But the federal government has never studied the Dene's health-related concerns -- specifically cancer.

André Corriveau, the Northwest Territories' chief medical officer of health, noted that high cancer rates among the Dene don't differ significantly from the overall territorial profile.

However, the death rate is skewed by high rates of smoking among the Inuit, he said.

Andy Orkin, an Ontario lawyer who deals with aboriginal and environmental issues, will present a brief to the Dene next week.

"We left them to die and hoped they would never ask any questions," he said.

Echoes of the Atomic Age

Uranium haunts a northern aboriginal village

by Andrew Nikiforuk
Calgary Herald
Saturday, March 14, 1998

Page A4 (same issue)

Fourteen of the 30 Dene who worked at the Port Radium, N.W.T. uranium mine have died of cancer. Declassified documents on the U.S. atomic weapons and energy program reveal that both the Canadian and American governments knew in the early 1940s of the deadly hazards of uranium extraction. Yet for two decades Ottawa failed to warn thousands of miners and natives of the risks they faced daily.

Now, the elders of Deline must decide whether to seek a settlement -- or sue for compensation.

Just south of the Arctic Circle on the shores of Great Bear Lake, the surviving elders of Deline now say the Prophet warned them.

These are the people whose dead husbands and brothers hauled the raw uranium ore that helped make the bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the ones who still have no word for radiation.

In immaculate white-walled bungalows, the elders nod at a stark photograph of a bearded figure and say in hushed and saddened tones, "Yes, Grandfather told us."

Until his death in 1940, Louis Ayah, one of the North's great aboriginal seers, repeatedly warned his people that the waters in Great Bear Lake would turn a foul yellow.

According to "Grandfather," the yellow poison would flow toward the village, recalls Madelaine Bayha, one of a dozen scarfed and skirted "uranium widows" in the village.

"The prophet spoke about that poison. He said that there would be sickness and that people would go through hard times and that there would be deaths," says Bayha, 82. Her husband, Joseph, worked for years at the uranium mine and died as many white miners did: coughing himself to death.

Fifty years after the first atomic bomb, the Cold War and the economic boom that was uranium, the elders in this community of 600 people are beginning to understand the meaning of that disturbing vision.

They realize that the ore mined from their ancestral hunting grounds became the ingredient of mass destruction; that the poison was none other than radiation and its deadly progeny; and that the source was Port Radium, the world's first uranium mine -- a primitive and often secret Crown company called Eldorado Mining and Refining, run by the federal government from 1942 to 1960.

They also suspect that many of the 18 deaths caused by cancer or lung diseases in the community in the past 30 years may be all part of the forgotten mine's radioactive legacy and that of its transport arm, Northern Transportation Co. Ltd.

And they have many questions. Why did the federal government, their guardian, and Eldorado, a defunct Crown corporation, never tell them of the dangers of uranium mining? Why, in a community where cancers were unknown and elders once lived into their 90s, have so many men died in their 60s and 70s?

"Something's wrong. A lot of people have died of cancer in the last 15 years," says Paul Baton, 83. As a young man he and more than 30 other Dene men barged or hauled 100-pound bags of uranium ore concentrate along a 2,100-kilometre transportation web of rivers, rapids and portages known as the "Highway of the Atom."

In addition to serving as coolies for the war effort, the Dene ate fish from contaminated dredging ponds. Their children played with the dusty ore at river docks and portage landings. And their women sewed tents from used uranium sacks.

The boatmen often slept atop ore-filled barges and nearly a dozen families regularly hunted, camped and fished at areas that a federal government study on radioactive wastes identified in 1994 as having "elevated gamma radiation, due to spillage of uranium ore."

"Before the mine, you never heard of cancer," says Baton, a small man with clear eyes and a strong face. "Not once. . . . The river pilots I knew all died of cancer. The families that cut logs for the mine are all gone. Something is wrong."

Although proving that a specific radioactive dose caused a specific individual cancer is problematic, scientists generally agree that there is no safe threshold for radiation exposure.

All exposures carry some risk of cancer or genetic effects and there is no doubt that the many Dene were routinely exposed to gamma radiation and radioactive dust over a period of 20 years.

The first Dene to die of cancer, or what elders still call "the incurable disease," was Old Man Ferdinand in 1960. He had worked at the mine site as a logger, guide and stevedore for nearly a decade.

"It was Christmastime and he wanted to shake hands with all the people as they came back from hunting," recalls Rene Fumoleau, then an Oblate missionary working in Deline.

After saying goodbye to the last family that came in, Ferdinand declared: "'Well, I guess I shook hands with everyone now,' and he died three hours later."

Others followed in the next decade. Victor Dolphus' arm came off when he tried to start an outboard motor. Dolphus, who had worked at the mine site for years, needed a contraption to hold up his neck before the cancer finished him. Joe Kenny, a boat pilot, died of colon cancer. His son, Napoleon, a deck hand, died of stomach cancer. And so on.

The premature death of so many men has not only left many widows but interrupted the handing down of culture. "In Dene society it is the grandfather who passes on the traditions and now there are too many men with no uncles, fathers or grandfathers to advise them," says Cindy Gilday, Joe Kenny's daughter, and chair of Deline Uranium Committee.

"It's the most vicious example of cultural genocide I have ever seen and its in my own home."

Although the Atomic Energy Control Board and uranium companies have long argued that little was known about uranium's hazards, evidence from U.S. and Canadian archives and survivors of the era tell a different story.

Unlike Ottawa, the U.S. recently declassified 250,000 documents on its atomic weapons and energy program, which reveal that government officials and scientists in both countries actively discussed uranium's hazards in secret. Yet publicly they remained mute.

The perils were well documented. As early as 1932, Canada's Department of Mines published studies on Port Radium that repeatedly warned about radon's poisonous effects on the lungs and "dangers from inhalation of radioactive dust."

The department's own blood studies on Port Radium miners lead it to conclude "that a hazard may exist in the breathing of air containing even small amounts of radon."

Wilhelm C. Hueper also knew this. In 1942 the founding director of the environmental cancer section of the U.S. National Cancer Institute reviewed 300 years of radon data on European miners. His conclusion: radon gas in cobalt mines routinely produced lung cancers that systematically killed more than half of all miners 10 to 20 years after their employment.

Hueper predicted a similar tragedy for radium miners in Great Bear Lake and the Belgium Congo. Warned the scientist: "In case the Belgian and Canadian operations should be conducted without the essential and comprehensive protective measures for the workers, the prospects for an epidemic-like appearance of lung carcinomas among their employees can be anticipated in the not too distant future." Forty years later, two Canadian mortality studies confirmed Hueper's foresight.

When Hueper began to issue similar warnings to U.S. uranium miners on the Colorado Plateau in the early 1950s, "the mine operators and politicians got all excited," says Victor E. Archer, an epidemiologist who started the first cancer studies on U.S. miners in 1954 and is now a professor of occupational medicine in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah.

Declassified U.S. documents also show that the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission told Hueper, a world expert on lung cancers, that references to occupational cancers among uranium miners were "not in the public interest" and "represented mere conjecture."

Notes Archer: "The Canadians knew about the same things that the U.S. did and in general tagged along with the Atomic Energy Commission." In fact Eldorado management and the Canadian government regularly received updates on radon and lung cancer studies on American uranium miners throughout the 1950s.

But neither government nor mine owners wanted to scare miners away or implement better health safeguards that would force uranium prices up, says Archer.

"We always suspected that the Americans had more information about the hazards but we could never get the damn stuff," recalls Hank Bloy, a retired engineer for Eldorado's Port Radium and Beaverlodge mines in the late 1950s.

"The Americans were buying our uranium and wanted it badly and didn't cooperate too much on the health standards."

In 1945, a federal research team from Montreal sent to monitor radon in the mine found conditions at Port Radium appalling. They reported that "the radon content seems to be so high as to be definitely dangerous to the health of those working in the mines."

Despite the installation of some fans in 1946, concerns about protection for miners at Great Bear Lake even became the subject of several 1949 memos at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which at that time bought all the mine's ore. This information was so confidential that one memo said: "It should not be quoted in any published report."

The next reference to ongoing radiation hazards at the mine surfaced at a secret 1953 meeting at Chalk River, Ont. When Canadian officials expressed concerns about high radon concentration in uranium mines, their American counterparts replied that "our problem is different because we have no concentration of uranium of any magnitude."

This was a lie: By 1953, the U.S. Public Health Services had established that American miners on the Colorado Plateau were being exposed to the same radiation doses as Hueper's European miners.

Dr. André Cipriani, a Canadian biologist keenly concerned about health safety in the whole uranium industry, then reported "that there had been three or four cases of cancers in employees" at Port Radium.

When the Canadian government finally sent two physicists to the area in the mid-1950s to check on radon levels at Port Radium's sister mine on Lake Athabasca -- a mine with much lower grade ore -- they found lots of radon. But according to one retired senior civil servant, that report, like Hueper's concerns, never saw the light of day.

"We printed it in green covers, which means declassified, and sent a copy up to Chalk River. And the next thing I knew we got orders from the assistant deputy minister to collect every copy and get them back to the department because not one was to go out. That report was squashed.

"I know that Eldorado was extremely cautious and didn't want anything coming out and I guess they said, 'For God's sake, stop this!' and it never came out," says the pensioned official, who is still bound to silence by the Official Secrets Act.

Because this health information was withheld, Canada's energy minister, Gordon Churchill, was able to declare in 1959 "that there are no special hazards attached to the mining of uranium that differ from other mining activities."

Notes Robert Bothwell, a University of Toronto historian and author of Eldorado, a lengthy history of the Crown company: "The profound and deliberate falsification of nuclear hazards began at the top."

The Port Radium record was eventually repeated at uranium mines across Canada. When the Ontario government appointed James Ham to study mine safety at Elliot Lake, another Eldorado uranium property, in 1974, he concluded that "neither the workers nor their representatives were advised about the emerging status of the problem of lung cancer."

Although Elliot Lake has now been closed for nearly 10 years, former miners with lung cancer and other radiation related ailments make an average of one compensation claim a week in Ontario.

The Atomic Energy Commission still has not adopted the latest radiation exposure guidelines issued by the International Commission of Radiation Protection. The ICRP, based in Sweden, issued the recommended levels in 1991.

Later Canadian studies found just what scientists early on had predicted would be found. One pilot study on Port Radium found 10 cases of lung cancer among 76 men who had worked more than five years at the mine. They died between 1953 and 1975.

Ontario and Newfoundland studies found miners exposed to radon had three to five times the average lung cancer rate. And on it went.

Watching a uranium miner die of a radioactive damaged lung is a job only for the brave. Al King, an 82-year-old retired member of the Steelworkers union in Vancouver, has held the hands of the dying.

He recalls one retired Port Radium miner whose chest lesions were so bad that they had spread to his femur and exploded it. "They couldn't pump enough morphine into him to keep him from screaming before he died."

"The ethical issues raised by this case are profound," says Andy Orkin, a well-known Ontario lawyer who advises the community and also represents the Cree of northern Quebec. "We did it to them. Somebody knew the stuff was dangerous. Even by standards of the day, they had a right to know."

Before the mine, the Dene, a nomadic people, hunted and fished along the rocky shores of Great Bear, the world's fourth-largest and least-studied inland lake. But the stability of that caribou life changed when the Dene unwittingly met the atom in 1930.

That's the year Gilbert and Charlie LaBine started to mine a rich load of pitchblende or radium just an eight-hour boat ride north of Deline (then Fort Franklin).

According to the elders, a Dene hunter traded a sample of the black lustrous mineral to a Kentucky-born fur trapper, who then alerted the LaBines, failed gold-seekers.

In exchange for the right to mine an ore then worth more than $70,000 a gram on world markets, the Dene received a few sacks of flour, lard and baking powder.

"On that day, the babies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were doomed to death by the time they would become 15 years of age," noted a 1945 Herald article on the historic mine.

Radium, which consists largely of uranium oxides, was then used for watch dials, medical X-rays and cancer treatments. It is just one of the radioactive byproducts of uranium, a constantly decaying metal that releases a wide spectrum of deadly energy particles, much like shrapnel from a grenade.

Port Radium contained so much of its namesake that in 1932 the Herald hailed the find as a "treasure house" and "Great Bear's rich citadel." As a consequence, the mine immediately broke the world monopoly on radium held by a Belgium firm in the Congo.

Rather than ship tonnes of chemicals to Great Bear to refine the radium, Eldorado established a refinery in Port Hope, Ont. It sold uranium as a waste product for $1.35 a pound or scattered radioactive tailings around the city -- a source of later scandals.

Before the mine temporarily closed in 1940 due to the war and declining radium demand, the Dene supplied caribou meat for the miners and then worked as loggers, stevedores or radium coolies.

In 1942, the U.S. Manhattan Project -- the secret effort to turn split atoms into explosive bombs -- quickly revived the mine's fortunes. Having no uranium sources of its own, the American government rapidly bought Port Radium stockpiles at the Port Hope Refinery and placed an order for 60 tonnes of uranium oxide.

To advance the war effort, Ottawa secretly purchased the mine. Alberta's wide-open spaces were even offered as possible test sites for the bomb.

It's unknown how many tonnes of Port Radium ore fuelled the first test bomb, called "Trinity," or even the war-stoppers -- "Fat Man" and "Little Boy." A shipload of Congo ore sitting in New York harbor eventually made up the bulk of the supplies because Eldorado had trouble filling both American and British orders for the war effort. But the Manhattan Project mixed ores from Great Bear and Africa and all the uranium was refined at Port Hope.

"Nobody knew what was going on," recalls Isadore Yukon, who hauled ores for three summers in a row during the 1940s. "Keeping the mine going full blast was the important thing."

To that end, the mine employed 250 white miners who battled frigid waters, poor ventilation (the mine counted on natural drafts to circulate air) and Port Radium's remoteness. Miner turnover was high.

While the whites mined the ore and sewed crushed ores into sacks, the Dene carried and piloted what they called the "money rock" out of Great Bear to Fort McMurray.

"When I was young," recalled 66-year-old Alfred Taniton, who worked on the ore-ferrying boats for five years, "I saw some of the workers hauling ores. The whites would have showers but us native people didn't . . . . I guess they really wanted to destroy us. That's why they never told us these things."

His wife Jane, now 59, lived two years at the mine and ate herring from the dredging pond. Two years ago she had a cancerous kidney removed. "If they had told us the truth the people wouldn't have worked for them," adds Alfred.

In 1994, an advisory committee to President Bill Clinton published a study on "human radiation experiments" in the United States. It looked at the treatment of miners, many of whom were Navajos.

Based on declassified documents, it concluded that "an insufficient effort was made by the federal government to mitigate the hazard to uranium miners through early ventilation of the mines and that as a result miners died. . . . Because the federal government did not take the necessary action, the product it purchased was at the price of hundreds of deaths."

That summary should bring no comfort to Deline's widows, nor to the widows of hundreds of uranium miners across Canada.

But it explains a legacy of deception.

"Of all the world's nuclear powers, Canada is the last hold-out on talking about its nuclear legacy and how so many things went terribly wrong," says Gordon Edwards, a Montreal mathematician and president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.

"I could never understand why authorities were so resistant," reflects Archer, whose epidemiology studies on American miners finally broke the official silence in 1961.

"As I got older I saw the same thing with cigarette smoking and asbestos. I now believe that it's a cultural thing. People are reluctant to change their minds and accept new ideas."

"The first time I heard about this bomb was from an army veteran in the 1950s," says Deline elder Paul Baton. "The soldier said he'd had respiratory problems, probably due to the war. He told us about the bomb and the aftermath and what it was made from.

"He explained how they dropped the bomb and its effect on the Japanese. He said later, down the years, it will affect my land and my life. . . .

"We had no idea. We are a strong people. We stand by our words. The elders are worried about the water, the air and the land. We must keep it clean because other animals use the land. . . . I have never talked about this before but now I am talking."

In Deline, the elders -- the ones that survived their introduction to the nuclear age -- now go the restored house of the prophet, the Grandfather, to speak to the dead.

There are not many other grandfathers left.

Port Radium (Eldorado) Timeline

1932: Port Radium begins production. Mines Canada issues health warnings on radon gas and radioactive dust.

1939: Canadian ore used in first atomic chain reaction experiment.

1940: Port Radium closes.

1941: Port Radium reopens for war effort, as world's first uranium mine.

1942: United States government orders 60 tonnes of uranium. Canadian government secretly begins to buy out mine. Dene work as coolies.

1945: Bombs dropped on Japan.

1949: U.S. officials raise health concerns about Port Radium miners.

1953: First Port Radium miner dies of cancer. United States government secretly begins health studies on U.S. miners.

1956: Value of uranium production hits $1 billion in Canada.

1957: Elliot Lake mine opens.

1960: Port Radium mine closes. No uranium left. First Dene dies of cancer.

1967: First radon standards set.

1974: First uranium miners with lung cancer compensated by Ontario.

1976: Ham Royal Commission slams government for hiding health information from miners. First Ontario studies published.

1979: First cancer death study on Port Radium miners.

1988: Canadian government merges Eldorado with the Sasktachewan Mining Development Corporation to form Cameco.

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