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

While it may be conjecture as to whether Chris Shuey influences the editorial voices of Gallup and other New Mexico media outlets, it appears that Mr. Shuey may have built the foundation for his career on a debacle related to the heavenly. On the other hand, can anyone blame an ambulance chaser for trying to make a living as well? Lacking a Three Mile-Island episode in laid-back Gallup, New Mexico, Chris Shuey helped build the Southwest Research and Information Center into a vocal “specialist” resistance against the uranium industry, apparently supporting the 1979 uranium mill tailings spill near Church Rock. It was considered one of the worst waste spills ever to occur in North America. We looked for conclusive evidence of deaths from this spill, but we came up short. Any official published report contradicting the previous statement would be welcome.

The SRIC Group, founded in 1971, established serious credibility in the media by milking the “terrible and tragic” human and animal health consequences of this spill. But where was the real damage in terms of human life and ecological destruction? We received the Executive Summary (dated October 1982) of an NMEID report entitled “The Church Rock Uranium Mill Tailings Spill: A Health and Environmental Assessment.” The report’s authors concluded, “In summary, the spill affected the environment of the Puerco River Valley for a short period, but 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” (approximately 94 million gallons of acidified sewage and waste slurry).

One might speculate whether the newspaper reports published in 1979 about this leak have the sound and smell of bad, yellow journalism. Others might wonder if these stories were better suited only to the funniest supermarket tabloids. If anyone believed what was written then, the entire population of Gallup, New Mexico should have been wiped off the face of the earth by now. Helping to fuel SRIC’s current hysteria over uranium mining, the environmental group argued that HRI’s proposed ISL uranium project, near the Church Rock boundary of the Navajo reservation, would cause groundwater contamination, perhaps with the same severity as previous waste leakage. In a sense it seems to bring back bad memories from that leak. “He’s very good at using the media,” sighed HRI’s Craig Bartels. “It’s a few people who are very vocal,” Bartels explained as he described SRIC’s opposition to his company’s ISL operation, “especially Chris Shuey, who bills himself as a journalist.”

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) did not give much credit to the sensationalism of the local media. The following was excerpted from their official report on the uranium waste leak:

o “The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in cooperation with the Church Rock community, found no documented human consumption of river water. Six Navajo people who were likely exposed to contaminants were selected by 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 that produce water for domestic use or livestock watering were affected by the spill. Wells that draw water exclusively from sandstone or limestone aquifers will likely never be affected by pollutant spills.”

o “Based on limited testing conducted by the CDC, the additional radiation risk from eating local animals is small. The risk is about the same as the increased risk from cosmic radiation resulting from moving from sea level to 5000 feet in altitude.”

o “Computer modeling identified inhalation as the most important route of human radiation exposure from the spill. However, sampling of airborne dust along the Puerco River in Gallup immediately after the spill showed only background levels of radioactivity. Additionally, a year After the spill, radioactivity levels in the Puerco River sediments decreased significantly due to dilution with uncontaminated river sediments.”

The Church Rock incident was reported 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 prepared by two staff members of the US Centers for Disease Control, two staff members of the New Mexico Department of Health and Environment, and one staff member of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Two strong conclusions emerged from this report:

“A review of state and federal regulations regarding ingestion doses calculated from the Church Rock data indicated that exposure limits were not exceeded from the spill or from chronic exposure to mine drainage.”

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

Despite these scientific reports, Chris Shuey continued to promote the “Puerco River Education” project until 1986. “The Gallup Independent” helped promote this panic and headlined a story, “Drink no Puerco water.” In a May 8 (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 or animal. , according to Albuquerque’s Southwest Research and Information Center.

Perhaps to enhance his expertise as a health authority, Mr. Shuey pursued a Masters in Public Health at the University of New Mexico, across the street from SRIC headquarters. In his dissertation, Shuey authored a comprehensive literature review on “Biomarkers of Renal Injury – Challenges for Uranium Exposure Studies” (submitted April 29, 2002). After this paper was presented, Shuey came forward with the unique claim that uranium leads to kidney cancers.

On its website, the American Cancer Society lists smoking, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle as the main risk factors that increase someone’s chances of developing kidney cancer (renal carcinoma). Occupational exposure to certain chemicals may also increase risk. Scientific studies have found they could include: asbestos, cadmium (a type of metal), some herbicides, benzene, and organic solvents, especially trichlorethylene. There is no report from the American Cancer Society of uranium exposure leading to kidney cancer. Cadmium is another story, however.

The problem with first coming to a conclusion and then researching the facts to confirm your preconceived idea defeats the scientific process. For example, Shuey dances around the issue of cadmium throughout his report, but fails to relate the burning of household garbage to the dangers of dioxins and cadmium when it comes to kidney-related problems and possible cancers. It appears that Shuey may have failed to include the single largest source of toxic air emissions that occurred in New Mexico prior to June 1, 2004, as a possible cause of kidney toxicity: garbage burning. Currently, New Mexico remains one of the few states that has failed to ban the burning of electronic equipment. This garbage burning reportedly releases high concentrations of cadmium into the air. Could something as obvious as cadmium concentrations be the risk factor leading to kidney cancer instead of the supposed 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, as do volcanoes, and is considered a minor source of atmospheric cadmium. The problem may not be uranium at all, but other chemicals. But fundraisers to reduce cadmium emissions, let alone fundraisers against coal mining, may not lead to celebrity dinners in Santa Fe.

It seems unsurprising that SRIC seems to care less about public health than its anti-nuclear agenda. Generally, the public’s reaction to an environmentalist is a warm and fuzzy feeling of, “Wow, here’s someone who really cares about our future.” SRIC has worked closely with the third-world-like Navajo Nation, which immediately elicits sympathy from any liberal-minded person. Indeed, when interviewed Shuey, he was on the reservation at a meeting. His public concern for the Navajo is commendable. At the same time, one must also consider that if the most common cause of death among Navajo adults is alcohol abuse (often accompanied by driving), then why hasn’t SRIC worked more closely to reduce this public health issue?

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

COPYRIGHT © 2007 by StockInterview, Inc.

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