It takes only a minute to drive past the houses here where the four leukemia victims lived; they're all just a few blocks from each other.
Una Manzanares, 12, was the first to die, Gail Barber, 11, the last. In between were Renae Heaton, 7, and Alan Maughan, 16, the captain of the high school basketball team.
They all lived within a half-mile of the old mill where the Atomic Energy Commission for 11 years processed uranium ore for nuclear weapons. The mill put enough junk in the air, local residents say, to dirty the wash hanging out to dry, enough to corrode the chrome on automobiles and enough to literally dissolve the screens in house windows.
All in the national defense, all to keep other nations at bay with the threat of nuclear death. But some residents here say that when the threat became an actuality, it occurred here in Monticello, where in the 1960s a mysterious incidence of leukemia took four young lives in town of 1,900 and left a former resident now living in Salt Lake City battling for his life against the disease. Statistically, there should have been only one case in 25 years.
"He was exposed to radiation somewhere or some way along the line," says Alan Maughan's father, Dale, as he cruises the quiet streets at the foot of the San Juan Mountains in southeastern Utah and points to the houses of the victims.
"If I hadn't moved here to Monticello, my boy would still be alive," he says of his move from Logan, Utah. "I firmly believe that."
Instead, Alan died of leukemia on July 5, 1966.
Today, the mill is gone, closed in 1960. Gone too are the days when it sent readings of highly dangerous radium in South Creek to more than two times the acceptable levels and gamma radiation levels along the edges of the mill site up to 20 times those of the surrounding area.
But such facilities as this are not a matter of bygone concern, for the mill's radioactive wastes, called "tailings," remain - as they do in bizarre fashion elsewhere in the United States. In Salt Lake City, where an abandoned mill still spreads radiation across the landscape, a firehouse built on fill matter of uranium wastes is so "hot" it would be declared hazardous and closed if it were a uranium mine.
In Grand Junction, Colo., more than 600 buildings built on such fill have construction crews airhammering basements and house slabs to remove radioactivity. In Canonsburg, Pa., 120 industrial workers have been exposed to one form of radioactivity from the wastes under their buildings.
So the off-orange and dead grass on the old uranium mill site here in Monticello is only a marker similar to those elsewhere in the country. In all, the U.S. government has identified 22 locations which, like Monticello, saw the grinding, crushing and extracting of uranium for national defense and remain today as toxic repositories of radioactive leftovers of the atomic age.
Their presence, and those of some 30 other former nuclear facilities, has put uncounted thousands of unwitting people nationwide on an atomic fault line, not knowing when or whether tragedy may rock their lives. Some 5,000 people in South Salt Lake City alone live within what is generally considered the danger zone of a uranium processing site - a half-mile.
There, 100 acres containing millions of tons of uranium tailings stand as a monument to the now-defunct Vitro Chemical Co.'s uranium processing facility. The Won-Door Co. next to the site recently has been abandoned its three structure manufacturing facility to escape the health threat from the mounds of uranium waste piled up next to the buildings.
Heightened concern over these uranium will sites comes at a time of new awareness of the delayed but potentially fatal effects of exposure to small amounts of radiation considered acceptable years ago.
For example, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare was recently directed to oversee a broad study of civilian and military personnel involved in the nation's atomic bomb tests after a startlingly high number of soliders at a 1957 test developed leukemia.
HEW is also expected to undertake soon a major reopening of a long-completed study of thyroid abnormalties among southwestern Utah schoolchildren exposed to radioactive fallout in the 1950s bomb tests. The original study concluded there was no increase in the abnormalities, which can lead to cancer, but officials now fear that enough time had perhaps not passed for all abnormalities to become apparent.
The Washington Post recently reported that residents in southwestern Utah and northwest Arizona blame the nuclear tests for a continuing incidence of leukemia and cancer among longtime residents.
And yesterday, health officials in Salt Lake City began examining firemen long exposed to radiation from five feet of fill hauled in 20 years ago from Vitro.
The firehouse, where about 60 people work, is the one that is so "hot" with radiation that if it were a uranium mine federal mine safety officials would close it as hazardous. Some areas of the firehouse, generally the living and sleeping quarters, record five times the amount of allowable radiation that uranium miners are permitted to be exposed to.
And last week Colorado state health officials were in Grand Junction, Colo., in an effort to determine whether leukemia - occurring at twice the expected rate and concentrated in the elderly - is at all related to the old uranium processing operation there or to the extensive use of its radioactive remnants as fill matter in construction projects in Mesa County.
"We asked the powers-to-be, and he said there were no qualms - the AEC wouldn't let them [give out fill] if it wasn't safe," says Soren Sorensen of Grand Junction, remembering the days in 1966 when he obtained 10, 10 ton truckloads of uranium wastes from the old Climax Mill for the home he was building."I called the AEC and they said there was no problem."
Seven years later, the fill under his house was removed in a federal and state-funded program that evolved from fear of the possible long-range health effects of the radioactive sand tht Sorensen and others had used to level their lots.
"I kind of got scared over the deal," George Biggs said of the tailings that were under the front part of his house. The Biggs family wonders whether the radiation was related to the breast cancer of Mrs. Darlene Biggs.
"You don't know," said George Biggs. "But the quicker the tailings were gone, the better I felt. [The radiation] was pretty high, especially right in that corner" - he points to where a visitor is seated - "where the wife always set. That's why we thought maybe it caused the cancer."
All told, 6,000 structures in Grand Junction have uranium tailings deposits not counting the streets and sidewalks. G. A. (Bud) Franz, a senior health physicist with the state health department there, says some 650 buildings have been recommended for removal of the radioactive wastes.
In some houses, he said, residents were receiving as much radiation beyond normal as they would if they were to get two or three unecessary whole-body X-rays a year.
Some $12 million is expected to be spent for the removal of the radioactive tailings in the Grand Junction area, three-fourths of the money provided by the federal government and the rest by the state.
Rep. Dan Marriott (R-Utah), citing past federal "neglect" in management of uranium mills and waste disposal, says a "serious health hazard" now exists in Salt Lake City near the Vitro wastes and eleswhere in the country.
The health threat can be either overall radiation to the entire body or from radon gas that deposits radioactive particles in the lungs and can cause cancer there.
Here in Monticello, the old uranium operation was owned by the AEC, which processed ore from 1949 to 1960. The ore was trucked in from mines around the area and stacked in mounds in an open field. After processing, the radioactive leftovers were returned to the field, and the winds, predominanntly from the south, carried to the north - where all of the leukemia victims resided.
Jon Lee's mother, April, grew up in the south sector of twon, right on the edge of the uranium operation. Although her son was born in 1964 - after the mill had been closed and radioactive tailings covered with dirt - she believes his leukemia is somehow related to here exposure over the years to the radioactive uranium site.
Now 16, Jon, who used to live around the corner from Alan Maughan and now is a Salt Lake City resident, has been fighting leukemia for eight years, although he was once given only two years or so to live.
But the other four leukemia victims have long been gone, youngsters who spent most of their brief lives growing up so close to the uranium mill.
So unusual were their deaths that federal health officials investigated them in 1967.
Although all of the children had leukemia that can be associated with radiation, "no relationship" was found with the uranium mill, Dr. Glyn Caldwell, a cancer specialist with the Center for Disease Control, quoted from a final report on the deaths.
Caldwell acknowledged, however, that the investigation focused on viruses then thought to spread cancer.
Monticello was one of the three southern Utah towns examined in 1967 for unexplainable increases in leukemia, Caldwell said. The other towns were Parowan and Paragonah in the southwestern part of the state in Iron County, which, along with Washington County, was subjected repeatedly to nuclear fallout from atomic testing in Nevada in the 1950s.
Parowan and Paragonah, with a combined population of 1,800, experienced four cases of leukemia from 1956 to 1967, two to three times the expected rate, Caldwell said. As in the case of Monticello, findings in those two towns were inconclusive.
So today the doubts and fears expressed by relatives of the Monticello victims remain over what impact the processing of uranium for nuclear arms has had on this town. "For a place this small," said Dale Maughan, "there had to be something."