This article was orginally published in Saturday Night (a Canadian general interest magazine that ceased publication in 2005) in the June, 1976 issue.
“The conditions in Elliot Lake are not the best conditions to work in to survive a normal life span. If anybody does not like to go to the hospital with lung cancer, he should have a very close look at the Elliot Lake situation before he signs on as an employee of either one of the companies. We believe that the companies should not have the right to expose people to conditions that will cause bodily harm. There has to be a clean-up programme before we can definitely advise people to seek employment in Elliot Lake.” (Paul Falkowski, United Steel Workers of America, Environmental Representative – June 1976)
The uranium miners there are dying of cancer at three times the normal rate. But what can a single-industry town do about it? Close down? Or live with death?
His voice broke in mid sentence. His eyes were red-rimmed and he fought back tears.
“I could be healthy, still workin. Now I have dust plus cancer. And the family is all upside down. Dad’s gonna die maybe today, maybe tomorrow, we don’t know.” His voice broke once again. “And that’s the way it looks like. It’s bad. It’s very bad for a family. Family’s more hurt than me. Cryin’, you know. Disaster.”
It was the type of interview that makes a documentary a success. It was also the type of interview that makes a journalist fell parasitic. One is pleased with having captured an extremely moving moment on tape. But one also feels exploitative for having the presumption to ask a dying man to spill his emotions into your microphone.
Here was a forty-four-year-old man who had spent fifteen years digging and blasting a living in the Elliot Lake uranium miners in northern Ontario. The work was back breaking, the kind of work that makes a man tough and hard. Miners a proud of the strong, vigorous image they project. They don’t cry in public. They don’t cry, that is, unless they are overwhelmed by events and their defences have been destroyed.
Joe Zuljan died in February, 1975, nine months after his words were broadcast by the CBC.
According to an Ontario government study, Elliot Lake miners are dying of cancer at more than three times the ordinary rate. Hundreds more have either developed the crippling lung disease silicosis, or show definite signs of doing so. The reason is that the Elliot Lake mines have repeatedly registered unsafe levels of silica dust and radiation.
Mary Zuljan, Joe Zuljan’s widow, is angry and bitter. “Joe worked fifteen years and three months in Denison Mines,” she says. “He never missed a shift without a good reason. He never was sick he took sick in the mines.”
Gradually the Elliot Lake miners’ plight became a media event. For a brief period, debilitated miners like Joe Zuljan, Gus Frobel, Aldo Pico, Charlie Guite, Albino Boucos, and Garry Toner were prominent figures in television documentaries, national newscasts, and feature articles. Working conditions in the mines became a scandal.
In order to offset the unwelcome publicity, the Ontario government launched an investigation into health and safety in Ontario mines. The media eventually forgot about the miners, and life in Elliot Lake returned to normal. The union hated the companies. The companies hated the union. The widows buried the disease-wracked bodies of their husbands and fatherless families began adjusting to a life on compensation.
And I began receiving telephone calls from irate Elliot Lake citizens. It soon became evident that Elliot Lake was severely split over the miners’ health issue. I was called a “dupe of the union.” Some callers suggested I was part of a “Communist conspiracy.” Others attached the credibility of the “dying miners” I interviewed, sanctimoniously pointing out that many of these men had torrid pasts as “drinkers and winchers.” Still others accused me of “killing the town by giving it bad publicity.”
But one caller was more rational. She said: “The media will never understand the sensitivity of those of us who live here. Some of us have suffered through a great deal of hardship to get this town on its feet and we resent muck-raking outsiders coming in and ruining all our efforts to make Elliot Lake a stable community.”
She had a point. People who have never lived in a single-industry area fail to appreciate the dependency syndrome that is part of these areas. One industry not only dominates the economy of the community, it also permeates the psychology of the people who live in its shadow. The community, after all, exists because of the industry. Furthermore, industry policies affect the town’s environment, its physical layout, the social hierarchy of the community, and the way citizens react to a crisis. Whenever their economic overlord is attached for any reason, the community instinctively rallies around the company.
But if this holds true for the hundreds of single-industry towns freckling the face of Canada, it’s doubly true for Elliot Lake. In order to understand the volatile atmosphere the miners’ health issue kindled in Elliot Lake, one has to appreciate the history of the town – a history of extreme boom and equally extreme bust.
Elliot Lake, carved out of the northern Ontario wilderness, is surrounded by imposing, tree-covered hills. The town’s split-level business section is perched on the side of one of those hills. Directly beneath the commercial district is an island-dotted lake with a sandy beach. Across the valley and half-way up the steep hill opposite the townsite, you can see the massive white forms of the Stanleigh and Milliken mines jutting above the tree tops. In the summer sunset, the bulky structures take on a pinkish hue, and while the view is hardly competition for the Taj Mahal, the strong, clean lines of the mining operations seem architecturally appropriate, and even attractive, in their untamed setting.
For the residents of Elliot Lake, however, the buildings and shafts of the Stanleigh and Milliken mines constantly drive home a cold fact of life: living in a single-industry area is an incredibly precarious experience. Stanleigh and Milliken were shut down a decade ago when the bottom fell out of the international uranium market. Only now is the Elliot Lake economy beginning t recover.
It was in 1949 that Franc Joubin, a prospector-geologist, first realized the commercial potential of Elliot Lake. He had discovered that a geiger-counter burst with static when it passed over rock cores from the Elliot Lake area. All Joubin required was financial backing to translate the bouncing geiger needle into a money-making uranium enterprise.
By 1953 Joubin had obtained the required funds from Joseph Hirshhorn, a New York mining promoter. Secretly the two entrepreneurs smuggled in a staking team. The team furtively staked claims in the radio-active area that lay in the ground in the rough shape of a gigantic Z, eighty miles long. Hirshhorn and Joubin are said to have cleared $30-million and $11-million respectively be selling part of their ore interests to mining companies after they announced their successful staking operation.
Between 1954 and 1956, the uranium rush was on. The big Z quickly gave birth to eleven uranium mines. Miners, get-rich-quick-schemers, immigrants trying t make a new life in a new country, people who fancied themselves as modern pioneers – all poured into Elliot Lake.
Maurice Menard opened a men’s clothing store during that period. He remembers it this way: “It was like a cheap American movie. I imagine the Klondike might have been the same way. Temporary quarters, temporary businesses, just plywood buildings . And one business of each kind. There was one barbershop, one clothing store, one drug store, one grocery store, one bank, with the dust and the dirt and the mud roads coming in here. And all kinds of people.”
Accommodating the mass of immigrants was a problem. The settlers hacked out clearings all along the road into Elliot Lake, and trailer camps mushroomed. People said that the town was the world’s largest conglomeration of trailers. The pioneers liked to refer to them as “the twentieth century’s answer to the covered wagon.”
And, as in most booming frontier towns, men were plentiful and females scarce. Prostitution thrived in the mobile homes. “Some people referred to them as ‘cat houses,’ says Menard, “but I think that’s very debasing. Let’s call them mobile homes of joy. As a matter of fact, some of them were so mobile they operated out of the back of a truck. One of the local policemen told me that they had a hard time charging them because they’d back this big truck up to the plant on a pay day, and the guys would be accommodated. If they saw the police cruiser coming they’d just close the tail-gate and drive off. The police had a very difficult time convicting anybody.”
Elliot Lake was building to meet a boom and investors were sinking millions into the town’s development.
Jig Sisson, who was a car salesman during that period, says salesmanship had very little to do with the success of a business. “There was so much money floating around, all you had t know was how to write up orders. I sold as many as thirteen cars in one day. I could have stayed open all night and sold cars all night.”
Everyone had confidence Elliot Lake would not be like other Canadian mining towns, with their booms and busts. The conventional wisdom was that the atomic blast at Hiroshima had irreversibly launched the atomic age. Elliot Lake was sitting on the largest known deposit of uranium-bearing ore in the western world, and uranium, of course, was the fuel for atomic energy. Furthermore, the Cold War was at its height. The United States was gobbling up every milligram of uranium it could get. Investors believed that the demand for uranium would sky-rocket even further since peaceful uses for atomic power were already in the planning stage.
Then, just as quickly as the roller coaster carried Elliot Lake to dizzying height, it took a catastrophic plunge. The United States decided not to renew its options on Canadian uranium.
The town’s population fell from nearly 30,000 to 5,000. From eleven active mines, only Rio Algom Mines Limited and Denison Mines Limited remained. The citizens who managed to hang on in Elliot Lake after the harrowing dive are still unnerved by the experience.
Tourists came to Elliot Lake to see what was known as “the world’s most modern ghost town.” The early ramshackle buildings had been optimistically replaced by spanking new bungalows. Now entire streets of newly built homes were abandoned, their windows boarded up with plywood. The residents began referring to the solid screens as “Pearson shutters” because Lester Pearson was the area’s MP at the time of the crash, as well as the country’s prime minister. The prime minister could do little for his constituents. The Canadian government could only offer to stockpile uranium and keep at least a few of the mines open.
Edna Elliot, a legal secretary, remembers how families were stuck with homes they no longer wanted or could afford. “You literally couldn’t give them away. If you wanted to save your credit you thought that, well, let’s sell it to somebody for a dollar or for the legal fees. No way. Nobody wanted that house. You couldn’t sell it for the rug on the floor, or for the garage at the back. You were stuck with it.”
The people who did stay on grew into a tightly knit group, a group that’s extremely touchy when anyone criticizes the town they’ve helped coax and coddle back to health. Jane Lyon, a nurse who manages the town’s medical clinic, says: “Once our friends had picked up and gone and Elliot Lake settled into what it was going to be, and we elected to stay, we became quite dependent on one another. We felt like we were toughing it out together because we were fighting for survival in those days. When people are doing this, a certain spirit develops.”
It is from these people, the ones who survived Elliot Lake’s depression, that the most articulate and vociferous criticism of the miners’ health issue comes. For fifteen years the beleaguered group doggedly clung to a dream. There were visions of uranium company business charts running out of room at the top to contain an every climbing profit line. And, for a while, it looked as if the town was finally getting back on its feet. Last summer there were new homes actually being built. As one woman put it, “I couldn’t believe it when I woke up one morning to hear the ring of hammers in the air. I didn’t believe it till I saw the frame of the house going up.”
Rio Algom Mines Limited and Denison Mines Limited announced that new contracts had been signed to supply uranium to various international markets. The contracts won’t run out until 1993, and both companies are expanding their uranium operations. Elliott Lake was ecstatic.
Then a short, intense man named Paul Falkowski rode into town. Paul Falkowski is the environmental representative for the United Steel Workers of America. He’s combative, and he unhesitatingly lunges for the jugular whenever occupational and environmental health issues are contested. In fact, he’s sop uncompromising over workers’ health issues that his union colleagues admit they have trouble controlling him.
Paul Falkowski saw the Elliot Lake miners were dying from cancer and silicosis at an alarming rate (although the government at first denied this was so). New prosperity or not, he began unceremoniously demanding that the situation be rectified. He pounded his first on the table in meetings with company officials, he publicly chastised government ministers, he fed information to sympathetic politicians, and he made sure the media heard his story.
Falkowski told all of them: “The conditions in Elliot Lake are not the best conditions to work in to survive a normal life span. If anybody does not like to go to the hospital with lung cancer, he should have a very close look at the Elliot Lake situation before he signs on as an employee of either one of the companies. We believe that the companies should not have the right to expose people to conditions that will cause bodily harm. There has to be a clean-up programme before we can definitely advise people to seek employment in Elliot Lake.”
Paul Falkowski was admonishing job-seekers to shun the Elliot Lake mines even though Rio Algom and Denison were crying for miners. As a result, Falkowski is a very unpopular man in Elliot Lake. The sick miners appreciate his help, since many of the diseased men would never have received adequate compensation otherwise. But the old-time residents, particularly those involved in local business activities and those indirectly dependent on the uranium corporations for a living, speak his name with extreme distaste.
Elliot Lake has become torn over the health issue. Everyone has taken sides. The citizens refuse to let anyone occupy the middle ground.
Eric Colwill, former editor of the Elliot Lake Standard, wearily spoke about repeated street corner arguments: “Union officials resented the newspaper for even mentioning the management side of the issue, while company officials chastised the paper for dwelling on the union’s submissions. We got criticism all the time form townspeople who felt the local press should ignore the issue. They said it might be okay for the Globe and Mail, but why do you want to go that for? Businessmen in particular said that because of the adverse publicity, newcomers wouldn’t be attracted to the community. The mining companies also said that they were having difficulty getting skilled miners and that this was because of the union’s insistence on health matters.”
The closely knit group that survived Elliot Lake’s depression blame “meddling outsiders” for the town’s difficulties. In their opinion the miners’ health issue is the fault of “dilettantes out to make a name for themselves.” They resent Paul Falkowski for coming to Elliot Lake and screaming about a work environment the companies claim is now clean. They dislike the media for focusing attention on the issue. They detest “Toronto politicians” like the NDP provincial leader, Stephen Lewis, for “using the health issue for personal political gain.”
The facts, however are clear, Elliot Lake miners are dying of cancer at an extraordinary rate, and hundreds more have over the years developed silicosis. The response of pro-industry residents, when confronted with these findings by the Ontario government, is to say that every job has a risk. Lorraine Randal, who with her husband established Elliot Lake’s first hardware store, says: “They knew there was a risk, maybe not as severe as it turned out to be, but it was they who decided to become miners. You either take a job that has a risk and put up with it, or you take another job. It’s the same as anybody driving to Toronto. If you’re on the highway, you might get hit.”
Mrs. Randall is not alone in expressing these sentiments. Most of the residents who feel the industry is unjustly maligned say the same thing, in almost the same words.
Falkowski, for this part, says: “Men who were hired to work in the mines only promised to give an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. They never agreed to give up a lung or wreck their respiratory systems in the process.”
It’s not that citizens who argue on behalf of the industry are cold and callous. These people would be shocked if the same miners worked with a machine that consistently cut off their arms. The consequences would immediately be obvious. The town would be populated with a horde of miners with stumps instead of hands. The community would probably storm the companies’ gates en masse, demanding that different machines be used in the mining process.
But the effects of exposure to carcinogens are not immediate. It takes fifteen to forty years for cancers to develop in workmen like the Elliot Lake miners. In the meantime, it’s extremely easy to rationalize exposing people to a cancer-causing environment. This is especially so in a community that has just stumbled out of the economic wilderness into prosperous times.
One Elliot Lake businessman feels that “the whole thing is very untimely because the mine can’t get miners … and they’ve got big things planned for the future. I mean big! That means something has to be done. They’re just going to have to pay them a lot more money to bring them in. Cancer or no cancer, they’ll come if you pay them enough. That’s the sign of the miner.”
The uncovering of an industrial cancer breeding ground continues to be a crude process. In effect, a human experiment is conducted. First, a working population is exposed to a particular work environment. Then, after a period of years, the cancer victims are counted to see if any abnormal trends can be detected in the exposed population. It was in this manner that Elliot Lake miners were found to be dying of lung cancer at a higher than expected rate.
The sad fact is that the Elliot Lake experiment need not have been conducted. The experiment had already been conducted in numerous other uranium mines long before mining operations in Elliot Lake began. As a result, techniques to purify dangerous mine environments have long been known.
In the sixteenth century, pitch-blend (radium) miners in the Erz Mountains of Germany and in Joachimsthal in Czechoslovakia observed that many of their colleagues died with impaired respiratory systems. The miners called the mysterious disease Mountain Sickness. In 1879 Mountain Sickness was finally diagnosed as lung cancer.
Bundles of medical surveys between 1900 and 1940 produced clear statistical evidence of excessive lung cancer deaths among European miners exposed to radiation. In the United States, the Colorado Department of Health recognized the miners’ health hazard as early as 1949, the year Franc Joubin discovered uranium in Elliot Lake. By 1957 the U.S. Public Health Service was publicly predicting an epidemic of lung cancer among uranium miners unless radiation levels were reduced. Elliot Lake was frantically gearing up for its heady boom years just about that time.
By 1962 and 1964, medical surveys in the United States unearthed evidence that fulfilled the worst predictions. American uranium miners were dying of respiratory cancer at a rate five to ten times higher than expected. In July, 1974, the Ontario government made public a survey confirming the union’s suspicions. Elliot Lake had something in common with uranium mining areas in Europe and the United States – a glut of men with lung cancer. Elliot Lake miners now argue that their lives were knowingly jeopardized in the Cold War rush to supply the uranium needed for U.S. armaments.
But where were the Elliot Lake doctors when all this was going on? According to Paul Falkowski, the town’s doctors jump to the defence of God, Queen, country, and company with an eagerness surpassed only by the town’s businessmen.
“I heard a lot of comments about the doctors from the people who came in with different compensation problems. Now I didn’t hear too many good things about the doctors except for one.
“I presume that over the entire period when the effects slowly began showing one the people, most doctors in Elliot Lake must have known about this. I have no other choice but to believe many doctors chose to err on the side of the company rather than on the side of the men who were affected. Now the men have to pay the penalties for their decision.”
Falkowski says that this willingness among doctors to coddle a town’s single industry is not exclusive to Elliot Lake. “In many towns, whether it be in Ontario, British Columbia, or Manitoba, where you have a one-industry town you find most of the doctors labelled as company doctors, and rightly so.”
Dr. Neil McMillan is the “one” doctor the union and diseased men say they trust. He is a large, gregarious, open man, blessed with a warm wit that is carefully rolled in a thick Scottish accent. Yet talking to Dr. McMillan about the miners’ health crisis can be an unsettling experience.
Dr. McMillan sympathizes with the plight of the debilitated miners, but he nevertheless sprinkles his analysis of the silicosis and cancer rates with the same rationalizations trotted out by the town’s pro-industry faction. He balances an understanding opinion that “men should not only be compensated for the fact they can no longer work, but also for the way their life-style is affected by diseased lungs off the job,” with an opinion that the men have become overly concerned with health conditions in the mines because of excessive publicity. And he’s quick to point out that every job has its risks. “I could cut myself with a scalpel, for example, and get a serious infection and die. When men decide to become miners they have to assume the risks of the job.”
Joe Zuljan, before he died, described his reasons for entering the uranium mines this way: “Where are you gonna go? You don’t have too much of education. No schools. You’re a DP. You don’t speak English. I didn’t want welfare. I wanted to work. I didn’t never ask no more than work.”
One medical official with whom every stricken miner eventually must deal is Dr. Charles Stewart. Dr. Stewart is in charge of the Chest Services Department of the Ontario Workman’s Compensation Board (WCB). Before that, Dr. Stewart was appointed the first reeve of Elliot Lake and ran as a Conservative candidate in an Ontario provincial election. When he lost, he accepted the appointment to head the Chest Services of the WCB and moved to Toronto.
Dr. Stewart has said that at least three years before the full dimensions of the Elliot Lake tragedy were known, he unsuccessfully approached Rio Algom and Denison Mines in an attempt to get pre-silicotic miners removed from the mines. He feels that eighty per cent of miners with visible dust effects on their lung X-rays eventually develop the lung rigidity characteristic of silicosis if they remain underground. No action was taken by the companies after this approach, although company officials asked the Workmen’s Compensation Board for a list of the men who were in danger. Dr. Stewart wasn’t forthcoming with the list.
As late as June 20, 1973, Dr. Stewart was telling claim no. 9319180, in a personal letter: “This is to advise you that as far as the Workman’s Compensation Board is concerned, you have every right to work underground even though you have a 10% disability for silicosis.” Silicosis claim no. 9319180 was Joe Zuljan. Just over a year and a half later Joe was dead. He never did act on Dr. Stewart’s advice to returen underground.
But then, the entire approach of governments to Elliot Lake has been duplicitous. Leo Bernier, the Ontario minister of natural resources, for example, accepted the responsibility for monitoring the Elliot Lake work environment on behalf of the miners. Yet Rio Algom Mines and Denison Mines Limited were allowed to police themselves. In other words, the companies measured the silica dust and radiation levels in their own miners. Unsurprisingly, the Elliot Lake mines consistently registered levels above the provincial standard. Furthermore, while the companies’ routine dust and radiation sample results were readily available to the government, they were not available to the miners.
Naturally, the government refused to allow the companies’ generosity to go unrewarded. Government officials repeatedly slipped the companies medical information concerning the silicotic condition of the miners, before the miners themselves found out about the state of their health.
Federal officials played the same “see-no-evil” game as their provincial counterparts, but were just more adept at deflecting the blame for inaction and short-sightedness. For years the union argued that the uranium mines were the responsibility of the federal government under the Atomic Energy Control Act. For years Ottawa ignored the union’s pleas. In fact, the Atomic Energy Control Board now admits the agency never even sought reports from Ontario uranium mines to determine whether the companies were observing federal radiation control standards.
The federal government, however, is not short of politicians adept at magically turning political short-comings into public virtues. Ottawa officials quietly sat back while the media hastily pinned the responsibility on the Ontario government. Then, when it was firmly entrenched in the public’s mind that the Elliot Lake disaster was solely the fault of the Ontario Conservatives, Donald MacDonald, the federal minister of energy at the time, made his move.
MacDonald self-righteously explained to the House of Commons that since the Ontario government had obviously failed to protect uranium miners, and their “responsibility has not been adequately discharged … we well exercise the whole responsibility here.”
Rio Algom and Denison Mines officials claim they have spent the last two years in a state of siege. As a result, Rio Algom repeatedly ignores opportunities to comment on the work environment issue. Denison Mines management usually follows the same course of action, and it was only with a great deal of coaxing that Mario de Bastiani, the vice-president of operations at Elliot Lake, agreed to talk about the situation.
De Bastiani feels the companies have been jobbed by the media it is for this reason they are reluctant to have any contact with reporters.
“No doubt in the early days, because of the rush, the environment may not have been exactly what it should have been,” he says. “However, since the early days, the companies, especially the two that have remained in business, have taken great strides at great expense to improve the environment underground and are still doing so.
“And where the environment cannot be made acceptable, the principle [of] protecting the man by other means has been accepted, and became company policy in 1969.”
What about the union charges?
“Well, I don’t think that the union tried to be objective about every point,” he says. “They don’t seem to want to accept any objectivity because they have their own reasons for doing what they are doing. And they are motivated by more than just the issues that they’re raising in the press.”
What are these motivations?
“I believe that they choose to bring it into the political field. [It] is of no interest to us to get into the political field in these matters of safety and health for our employees.”
The companies are in an awkward position. Uranium prices are soaring. Both firms are frantically expanding their operations to meet the demand. Whereas each company employs about 1,000 men at Elliot Lake, by next year each expects to have more than 2,500 working in their respective operations. But the bad publicity has made it difficult to get experienced miners to move to Elliot Lake.
Several announcements have been made. The provincial government will monitor the silica dust and radiation levels in the mines with the co-operation of the companies and under the supervision of the Atomic Energy Control Board. The results will be posted for the miners to see. Men who are pre-silicotics will be given assistance to get out of the mines before they develop silicosis. More than $4- million dollars has been ear-marked by the companies to improve ventilation in the mines. The Ontario and federal governments will re-evaluate and co-ordinate their radiation standards and monitoring procedures.
But an argument still rages over what level of radiation exposure is hazardous, and the companies insist that their mines have been unfairly singled out as cancer producers. The real villains, according to the companies, are cigarettes.
The companies are correct. If you work in a uranium mine and smoke, you run a much greater risk of developing lung cancer than does a cigarette abstainer. However, medical data indicate that non-smoking miners are a cancer risk as well. To quote a recent survey of the medical literature on cancer in uranium mines: “Both smoking and non-smoking uranium miners had higher lung cancer rates that the general population” (emphasis in the original).
It seems that smoking cigarettes while working in a uranium mine is extremely lethal. Cigarettes do enhance radiation’s effectiveness as an active cancer-causing agent. (Joe Zuljan smoked cigarettes.) Nevertheless, unacceptable radiation levels are potentially disastrous even to non-smokers.
The smokers-versus-non-smokers episode is characteristic of most environmental health confrontations. The citizen is forced to place his trust in the hands of sophisticated specialists.
Confused by the unfamiliar jargon and unable to follow the esoteric arguments employed by the experts, the citizen often throws up his hands and makes the assumption that eventually scientific truth will win out and everything will be justly settled.
But this isn’t necessarily the case. The scientific truth must first run a political gauntlet. For after the authorities give their advice, and all the technical data is in, the decision arrived at is ultimately a political verdict. It’s merely masquerading as a scientific ruling.
Politicians, corporations, and unions are aware of this environmental fact of life. And since in the long run they must rely upon the combined political and scientific judgement of their technical advisors, they tend to choose as advisors scientists whose biases are similar to their own. When confronted with these conflicting scientific presentations on environmental health, the public is forced to decide whose argument is valid.
The residents of Elliot Lake have been bombarded with scientific propaganda. They’ve grown punch-drunk with information on picocuries, radon daughters, dust particles per cubic centimetre, definitions of safe Working Level Months, epidemiological data, and interpretations of X-ray gradations. On at least one occasion a government pamphlet that minimized the hazards of working in Elliot Lake was distributed in the community and then eagerly reprinted in northern Ontario newspapers by the companies. The union responded with their own scientific pamphlet entitled “WHITEWASH – what the Ontario government is hiding from the people of Elliot Lake.”
“I’ve become so cynical about anything i get in the mailbox on the health issue,” says on Elliot Lake citizen. “I immediately toss it in the garbage can. I don’t even bother to look and see what side it’s form. The whole situation is an absolute mess.”
The fight has been bitter, and sometimes ugly. Paul Falkowski worked himself into a serious heart attack and then was sued for libel by Denison Mines. Mario de Bastiani himself became an issue in negotiations with the union and was transferred by the company out of Elliot Lake, the town he had helped build.
Dr. A. Antochin worked for thirteen years in Elliot Lake. As a native of Czechoslovakia, he was familiar with the health problems of uranium mining. In 1969, just before the first miners began to show up with lung cancer and silicosis, Dr. Antochin retired and moved to Niagara Falls. He has been visited many times for medical examinations by sick miners, including Joe Zuljan, trying to establish compensation claims. The miners had confidence in Dr. Antochin, but didn’t trust the Elliot Lake doctors to present their case.
Dr. Antochin remembers taking his X-rays to the companies in 1958 and 1959 and telling them that in a few years a serious health problem would erupt. He remembers telling some of the men that if he were them he would only work for a few years in the mines and then get another job. Neither the company nor the men seemed interested in what he had to say.
“They didn’t seem to realize it would one day be a problem,” he says now. “The people at that time were just thinking for today.”
Dr. Antochin carefully refuses to single out a villain at Elliot Lake, “No one is at fault,” he says. But then he pauses. “I’m no radical, but if anyone is to blame it is the system’s fault. There was a lot of pressure on the mine managers to produce, and they were just interested in my signature on an X-ray [approving a man’s immediate health]. But there was no pressure on me to keep a sick man working.
The miners were earning pretty good money. They bought houses and had large mortgages. They had car payments to meet and families to support. When I advised them to leave the mines, they didn’t want to believe my warning. Everybody is at fault. The company and the miners both thought they wouldn’t get caught.