Jimmy Denton dosen't give a damm about a little radiation. "I've probably worked in some pretty high radiation areas" in 19 years as an underground uranium miner, Denton says."I'm 59, and I feel fine. Have a beer?"
He pushes his chair back from the kitchen table, a small, rugged man who wears his black-framed safety glasses at home and in the mines.
Like many of the 16,000 people in his uranium mining town this summer, Denton is worried - but not about his daily exposure to low levels of radiation. It is the antinuclear movement that worries him.
Grants supplies 47 percent of the nation's yellowcake, or uranium oxide, used to make fuel pellets for nuclear reactors. If the nation sours on nuclear energy, "what would you do with all the people in Grants?" Denton wonders. "Would those protesters give us a job? They probably don't even have a damn job themselves,"
In the bars and cafes of Grants, strung alongside Interstate 40 in western New Mexico, the patrons are angry at the rest of America for listening to the protesters.
"It was pitiful, the way they ran away" from the vicinity of Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear accident in March, a miner at the Frontier Bar declares. "We're exposed to more radiation than that every day at Grants."
He explains that, even for people who do not work in the uranium mines and mills, the background radiation in Grants, and much of the West, is increased by the region's genology and elevation. "What was Three Mile Island, anyway?" he shrugs.
"One cancer death, maybe."
People here bristle at questions about the safety of Grants' background radiation. "The AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) was in here running background counts," Mayor Mitch Wells said. "Our background wasn't a whole lot higher than other places." That test was peformed in the early 1960s.
In November 1975, the Environmental Protection Agency tested that air in the maining and milling region north of Grants and found concentrations of radon gas "in excess of typical background levels."
Radon gas, a radioactive decay product of radium, is blamed for a current epidemic of lung cancer among underground uranium miners who worked during the 1950s, and early 1960s, before mines were properly ventilated. Breathed in sufficient concentrations, radon daughters - the short-lived decay products of radon - can damage the lung by attaching themselves to the lining and irradiating sensitive lung tissue.
The EPA traced the radon emissions to the huge waste piles associated with uranium ore milling, and to the ventuation shafts associated with deep uranium mining. Fifty-three million tons of gray sand wastes, called tailings, are piled as high as 100 feet over 635 acres north of Grants. Jutting up like periscopes from 16 mines, 150 exhaust shafts peer blindly at the landscape.
The EPA recommended that the state conduct further tests, over a full year, for rador gas. Last summer the New Mexico Enviromental Improvement Divisior began monitoring the area.
"In several places in the Grants mineral belt, but not in Grants itself, there were concentrations of radon gas right at the limit" permissible in New Mexico last summer, according to Thomas Buhl, a state health physicist.
"It could be that in the fall we'll see concentrations of radon in Grants itself. The atmospheric inversions that you get in the winter tend to drive radon levels up. The radon could shift over to Grants."
While that warning might strike fear into the heart of many an American town, in the self-proclaimed UraniumCapital of the World it is dismissed as more "environmental bull . . ." in the words of Ignacio Slazar
"I'm a simple person," says the 31-year-old organizer of the Energy Association of Tazpayers [EAT], a group of Grants' residents opposed to government regulation and environmentalism. "If something is bad for you, you simply stay away from it. Uranium's just not bad for you."
Uranium has been very good to the approximately 100 members of EAT
"Uranium's our bread and butter," one member explains. Directly or indirectly, everyone in Grants lives off the uranium industry payroll: $167 million in New Mexico in 1978, and expected to hit $190 million this year.
EAT was organizd this spring, shortly after Friends of the Earth and 91 Navajo Indians filed suit to halt uanium development in the region until environmental impact statements can be completed. The suit is pending in U.S. District Court in Washingon.
Salazar is baffled by the Navajos' action. "They're fighting the uranium industry to keep it off their land. It's their first opportunity to enjoy the good life -- buy a new truck, get some good breed cattle, get away from the federal government," he says.
For Salazar and his brothers, who were unemploved and broke when they came to grants from Mexico in the 1960s, the uranium industry has been the back door to middle-class America. Today they operate an exploratory drilling company.
"A lot of people ask how I've done so good here," Salazar said. Even as an apprentice driller, "things needed to be done, I did them. I never questioned."