Years worked: 32 years from 1940 – 1976
Facility and job title: Union Carbide Mill – Mill site/Shift Foreman
Tell us your story:
I was born in Red Mesa, Colorado 1917. In the mid 1930’s my family moved to the region of Uravan, Colorado. My father went to work for the United States Vanadium Corporation. In those days, Uravan wasn’t much, just a small mining town off Highway 141 near the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers. Small town Western Colorado was a wonderful place to raise children and build a family. Times were difficult and jobs were few. After high school, I put my application in for work at the mill in hopes to work with my father. During those times employees were chosen at random off the street. Many men would gather daily outside the gate of the mill in hopes that they would be chosen to go to work. One such day, my dad told me he had spoken to the supervisor about my coming to work. The fix was in. When I showed up that next morning at the gate outside the mill with my brother Alva, the supervisor came to the gate and asked was there a Hiett in the crowd. My brother said yes and was picked to go to work instead of me. I went ahead and found work on a local ranch for a couple of years. In 1939 the mining company purchased the Club Ranch just north of the mill, in order to obtain the water rights to the river which grew to become an important part of the mill’s operation. The ranch also provided cattle, vegetables and fruits for the town. I was finally hired by the company to work the ranch that summer. At the end of the summer, I was transferred to work at the mill for the next two years.
In 1940, I was called by the U.S. Army. After basic training I was first stationed at Camp Pickett in Virginia. Upon learning I had worked in the vanadium mill in Uravan, I was transferred into the core of engineers under General Grove at Oak Ridge, Tennessee where they were working on the Manhattan Project. One thing led to another, and because I had experience working in a vanadium mill I was once again transferred as a U.S. Army Technician to help oversee the mill operation at Uravan, Colorado. At this time the mill was being operated under the direction of the U.S. Government as part of the Manhattan Project. They were separating uranium and vanadium from the ore and shipping the raw materials to several locations within the United States.
Little was known about the impact of the uranium dust or its effects on the mill workers at this time. In 1945 after the war had ended, the mill was closed and the plant shut down. I moved my family to Oregon to obtain work in the lumber industry. We lived there until 16949 when I was contacted by Union Carbide Inc., advising me that they were going to reopen the mill and asked if I was interested in a position. I, of course, was very interested and we returned to Uravan, Colorado.
The reconstruction of the mill began in 1949 and was completed in 1950 when the plant was reopened. For the next 26 years we continued to separate the vanadium and uranium from the ore and shipped it around the country. Among the many uses for uranium when processed properly the U234 we mined was turned into U238 used for Atom Bombs. Other research was being done in many technical areas and uranium is now used in a variety of high tech applications. For example, uranium is currently used for medical applications and has proven to save many lives in a number of specialty areas.
During the years as a civilian working at the plant, our family grew to include five children. I retired in May of 1976. It was in the 1960s after my retirement that a Dr. Sockamon in Grand Junction, Colorado began studying the effects of radiation dust on employees. As a result of his research and findings, Union Carbide Inc. established several new safety applications for plant and mine workers. The plant installed various size dust collectors throughout the mill and required wor
kers to wear respirators within specified locations of the mines and plant. Even with these precautions, many of our workers contracted cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. It seemed to me that the workers who smoked were most affected.
During all my time at the mill there was very little employee turnover. Although many of the mill employees have long passed away, we tried to stay in touch with each other as best we could.
One story I remember that really alarmed us at the time, was when one of the mill workers drove up the hill to the supply shack to get some tools and equipment needed for repairs. He had forgotten to apply the parking brake on the truck. The truck rolled down the hill and crashed into one of the large propane tanks. The whole camp was put on alert and employees were evacuated as fast as possible. The crash caused a four inch line to come loose from the tank and created a large cloud of propane. My supervisor was driving down the hill from another part of the plan and didn’t know what had happened. He drove his truck into the cloud of propane. We were amazed that the truck didn’t cause the propane to explode. Instead, the truck just stopped in the middle of the cloud and died. It must have been the lack of oxygen within the cloud that caused the truck to die. Whatever it was, it saved the camp from going up in flames. It all ended well.
Ten years after my retirement, I was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis which I am still suffering with today at the ripe old age of 92. May God bless all those I had the chance to live and work with over my career.
Cliff M. Hiett