Anyone who visited the Grand Canyon Collections Building between 2000 and June 18, 2018, was exposed to radioactive uranium at levels 400 t0 4,000 times greater than those considered safe by Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards, a National Park Service manager told National Park employees and health officials earlier this month.
Elston “Swede” Stephenson, the park’s safety, health and wellness manager, sent the email to fellow employees and, a week later, to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, saying he had repeatedly asked National Park executives to inform the public of the exposure and the potential health risks they faced, but the officials refused to speak up.
“Respectfully, it was not only immoral not to let our people know,” Stephenson said, “but I could no longer risk my (health and safety) certification by letting this go any longer.”
According to Stephenson, the buckets of uranium ore had been in a basement at the park headquarters for decades, but were moved to the museum building when it opened around 2000. The containers were placed near a taxidermy exhibit, an exhibit frequented by tourists of all ages. Often, children would sit by the exhibit for 30 minutes or more during field trip presentations.
No one thought much of the containers until March 2018, when the teenaged son of a park employee, who happened to have a Geiger counter, came to the museum. The instrument, which detects and measures ionizing radiation, lit up near the buckets. Stephenson says workers moved the buckets to another part of the museum, but did nothing else to rid the place of radioactive danger. Stephenson didn’t find out about the uranium until a few months later when he was assisting with a safety audit. He knew immediately that the uranium posed a public health concern.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to very high levels of radiation can cause acute health effects like skin burns and acute radiation syndrome. It can also result in long-term health effects like cancer and cardiovascular disease. Even low levels of radiation can increase the risk of cancer in general.
Stephenson contacted a National Parks specialist in Colorado who sent technicians who arrived in gardening gloves and used a broken mop handle to lift the buckets into a truck. They disposed of the uranium in Orphan Mine, an old uranium dig and potential Superfund site about two miles from Grand Canyon Village.
Stephenson filed a report with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in November. Inspectors arrived in hazmat suits and used equipment to detect a low-level site at the museum, which is where the workers had returned the buckets after disposing of the uranium. OSHA said it is still investigating the scene but did not comment any further.
A Grand Canyon official said the Park Service was working with OSHA and the Arizona Department of Health Services on the investigation. Stephenson, meanwhile, calls the National Park’s slow action on the matter a cover-up.