Whistleblower: Grand Canyon Employees Exposed To Uranium In 5-Gallon Tubs

Liz Carey

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ (WorkersCompensation.com) – A safety manager with the National Park Service said employees at Grand Canyon National Park, as well as tourists, were exposed to radiation for close to two decades.

Elston “Swede” Stephenson, the safety, health and wellness manager for the national park, sent a rogue email to all of the park’s employee’s detailing what he said was a cover-up of “top management failure” when federal officials failed to notify park staff members and the public about their exposure to the radioactive material.

According to the Arizona Republic, Stephenson told federal officials that Geiger counters indicated that 5-gallon containers stored in the park’s Museum Collection Building contained uranium ore and were emitting radiation.

“If you were in the Museum Collections Building (2C) between the year 2000 and June 18, 2018, you were ‘exposed’ to uranium by OSHA’s definition,” Stephenson wrote in the email to staff, according to reports. “The radiation readings, at first blush, exceeds (sic) the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safe limits… Identifying who was exposed, and your exposure level, gets tricky and is our next important task.”

Stephenson also wrote letters to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall letting them know he had repeatedly asked national park executives to inform the public.

The buckets of uranium ore were moved to the museum building, Stephenson said, when it opened in 2000. One of the buckets was so full that its lid would not close, he said.

Uranium Facts

According to the World Nuclear Association, an international nuclear energy industry organization, uranium ore is a naturally occurring element, very different from enriched uranium most people are familiar with.

“Uranium is a naturally-occurring element in the Earth’s crust. Traces of it occur almost everywhere, although mining takes place in locations where it is naturally concentrated. To make nuclear fuel from the uranium ore requires first for the uranium to be extracted from the rock in which it is found, then enriched in the uranium-235 isotope, before being made into pellets that are loaded into assemblies of nuclear fuel rods,” the organization said on its website.

Uranium ore typically contains only 1 percent uranium before going through the enrichment process. After the ore is broken up and the uranium extracted, enriched uranium contains about 85 percent of the radioactive element.

In a 45-slide presentation Stephenson created, he estimates between 2 and 5 workers were in the building daily. From his understanding of a report submitted by the Park Service’s regional safety manager, the radiation levels were at 13.9 millirems per hour where the bucket was stored, and 800 per hour on contact with the ore. Five feet from the buckets, according to the report, the reading was zero.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the exposure is above what one could normally expect to be exposed to.

“On average, Americans receive a radiation dose of about 0.62 rem (620 millirem) each year. Half of this dose comes from natural background radiation. Most of this background exposure comes from radon in the air, with smaller amounts from cosmic rays and the Earth itself … The other half (0.31 rem or 310 mrem) comes from man-made sources of radiation, including medical, commercial, and industrial sources. In general, a yearly dose of 620 millirem from all radiation sources has not been shown to cause humans any harm,” NRC documents regarding radiation exposure said.

But the NRC also requires that employees handling radioactive material be subject to a far lower exposure than was measured.

“The NRC limits the handling and use of radioactive materials such that no member of the public will receive a radiation dose of 2 millirems in any one hour from external radiation sources in an unrestricted area, or 100 millirems in a calendar year from both external and internal sources of radiation from each licensee,” according to NRC documents.

Potential Effects on Employees

The effects of the exposure to the ore will take time to determine, said Hugh Stephens, an attorney who focuses on compensation for federal workers and government contractors who worked for the nuclear weapons program.

“The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) would do a dose reconstruction if someone had a claim that they got cancer from this exposure,” Stephens said. “They would go in and look at the exposure and do a dose reconstruction to make an estimate of how much radiation they were exposed to. But that wouldn’t come up until after someone makes a claim.”

In many of his cases, there is a five year waiting period for cancers to develop. If a worker were at a job for four years, as an example, officials may say the cancer was not caused by the exposure to the radiation.

But the radiation levels seem low to him.

“Uranium ore is a long way from enriched uranium,” Stephens said. “I can say that when we get a case where someone gets cancer, they’re in the 40 rem area. This is millirems… Really, there is no safe dose of radiation; it may be that a relatively small dose may cause cancer in someone. But this is a relatively small exposure. I don’t think NIOSH would be able to say conclusively that this exposure was the cause of someone’s cancer.”

Stephenson said the uranium ore was discovered last year when an employee’s son brought a Geiger counter with him on a visit to the park. The son scanned the containers in the museum collection room and his Geiger counter went off. At that time, workers moved the buckets to another location in the building, Stephenson said.

A few months later, he said, during a safety audit, employees told him about the container. Stephenson contacted National Parks specialists who removed the uranium ore from the parks’ museum building and dumped them in Orphan Mine, an old uranium dig about two miles from the canyon that is considered a Superfund site.

Stephenson told reporters that “high level officials in the Park Service developed a ‘secrecy pact’ to conceal radiation exposure data despite his insistence that a ‘Right to know’ law mandated public disclosure.

“My first interest is the safety of the workers and the people,” he said.

Emily Davis, a public affairs specialist with at the Grand Canyon, said the Park Service is investigating Stephenson’s claims in conjunction with OSHA and the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Davis told reporters the museum collections building had recently been reviewed for radiation, and that the review only found naturally-occurring background radiation.

“There is no risk to the park employees or the public,” Davis told USA Today. “The building is open… The information I have is that the rocks were removed and there’s no danger.”

Davis declined to comment on Stephenson’s assertion that the public should have been told and asserted that the park takes its commitment to its employees, and the public, very seriously.

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