Monticello Mill: Federal Government Forces Locals to Unite

Residents of Monticello - a small town in southeast Utah - are still weighing the economic benefits of the Monticello Mill against the environmental and health problems it caused in their community.

When a new government-owned mill opened in 1942 in the small town of Monticello, Utah, the local response was overwhelmingly positive. The local paper rejoiced, “Monticello is feeling the influx of much more money… Owners of restaurants, markets, garages, the motion picture house, and other businesses have learned that the coming of a new industry means a new source of income for all.” The new industry that caused the boom in Monticello was the mining and processing of vanadium, and later uranium. Both were essential elements in the production of America’s growing stockpile of nuclear weapons, and both are radioactive. The initial enthusiasm built from promised economic development soured due to pollution and health crises. Even though the EPA has designated two Superfund sites, many locals remain unsatisfied with government efforts to remediate the damage done to their community.

Economic growth was not the only factor influencing the initial positive reception of the mill. Patriotism also fueled the resident’s support of the mill’s operation. People felt that they were meaningfully contributing to the efforts of the Cold War. San Juan County was touted as “the new muscle behind the American effort in waging total war” and was deemed the “area that has made a greater contribution to the scientific world than any other spot in the universe.” The Department of Energy ran the Monticello Mill, so people employed there were working for the federal government, not a greedy private company. By the 1960s, however, the bottom had fallen out in the uranium industry and after the mill’s closure, people were left in an economic depression and with a lot of unanswered questions.

For about 40 years after the mill’s closing, over 2 million tons of tailings waste and other contaminated materials sat exposed at the mill site. Wind blew dust from the radioactive waste into the town and contaminated materials used in construction throughout Monticello. In 1993, locals officially formed the committee Victims of Mill Tailings Exposure (VMTE). The VMTE is especially unique because of the lack of organizations like it in the state of Utah. Even though there have been as many as 25 super fund sites in the Beehive State, the VMTE is the only organization that has formed in response to environmental damage done to the community. A memorial funded by the VMTE reads “During the Cold War, we fought against communist ideology, but it was ourselves we were killing.” The tribute continues describing the effects of contamination, “Chrome came off car bumpers. Screen doors changed color. White sheets hung on the line turned yellow, and fumes from the plant were inhaled in the lungs of young and old alike; mill workers, miners, ore haulers, city residents, families and children.”

Despite the mounting evidence that contaminants have led to an increase in cancer and other disease rates in Monticello, the VMTE continues to fight for at least two things they feel they deserve: access to and payment for adequate treatment. The nearest cancer center over 100 miles away in Durango, Colorado. Some residents travel up to 300 miles for treatment in St. George, Utah. Monticello was once notable as a town whose residents enthusiastically supported of the national government. Today, many demand that the United States take responsibility for its mistakes and provide compensation. One VMTE member explained how fellow townspeople motivate him to keep fighting, “They say ‘Don't stop. We know that mill caused our cancer.’”

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