Four million tons of radioactive waste are buried under a grassy field three miles southeast of Edgemont in far southwestern South Dakota. North of Edgemont, two massive abandoned mines, the biggest measuring about a mile across, scar the range land.
They are the byproducts of a uranium mining boom, and because the waste is nine feet underground and the mines are too far from the roads to be seen, they’re largely forgotten. So, too, are the other ill effects of the uranium mining rush that took place a half-century ago.
Locals may remember the jobs, and the bustling processing plant. They perhaps never knew about the out-of-state tycoons who pulled millions in profits from the ground, and then left a big mess behind. And they tend to forget or overlook the abandoned mill waste, the workers sickened by dust and radiation, and the abandoned mines and possible environmental contamination.
Now those old buried memories are being stirred by two very different yet confluent developments: a proposal for a new method of uranium mining in the same area; and new federal studies of the environmental damage caused by the old mines.
Together, they form the latest chapters in a story that continues to unfold some six decades after it began amid the clamor and chaos of a yellowcake gold rush.
On a warm fall day, Oct. 5, 1954, in the Red Canyon region north of Edgemont, a woman stood in front of an advancing bulldozer.
But unlike most days in the history of the remote southwestern edge of the Black Hills, where dry plains meet pine-covered mountains and sandstone rocks jut among the grass and sage, all was not quiet. For three years, the natural beauty and stillness had been punctured by jackhammers, dynamite explosions and the roar of heavy machinery.
Uranium was the era’s new gold, and the rush was on.
Eugenia Chord, the woman in front of the bulldozer, had found some interlopers on her mining claim and told them to leave. They refused.
According to her, the dozer operator moved the machine’s blade back and forth menacingly as she stood in front of it. She held her ground.
That’s when, according to Chord, a man named James Mullen shouted an instruction to the dozer operator.
“Run over her!”
The operator refused. Chord said Mullen replaced the operator on the driver’s seat and drove the machine to within a ruler’s length of her body before one of the other men talked him down.
Such was life during the greed-fueled birth of uranium mining near Edgemont, according to a Rapid City Journal account of Chord’s testimony during a 1955 trial. She and her husband, Roy, sued Mullen for claim-jumping and won.
The rush began in 1951 and the boom lasted about 20 years. During those two decades, the town came to be dominated by a massive, Chicago-based holding company known as the Susquehanna Corporation and two of its subsidiaries, Mines Development and Susquehanna-Western.
The marriage between Susquehanna and Edgemont brought the town a temporary economic boost, but the divorce left it suffering economic, human health and environmental effects that still fester all these decades later.
It all began with atomic bombs, a discovery in a canyon wall, and a meeting between a young entrepreneur and a cunning financier.
Bombs and a bonanza
The Atomic Age exploded into being when the United States dropped its A-bombs on Japan in 1945.
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