The Grand Canyon might be one of the world’s greatest natural wonders and an incredible tourist attraction, but it seems that there’s something pretty disturbing going on at the park’s museum collection building. Apparently, three five-gallon plastic buckets brimming with uranium ore were stored in the building between the year 2000 and June 18, 2018. According to the New York Times, “About 550 people tour the collections each year, mostly by appointment.”
The radioactive material was only discovered after the teenage son of a park employee brought a Geiger counter device into the collection room in March, 2018, and detected the radiation. National parks specialists removed the buckets, but seemingly no effort was made to inform park workers or visitors that they may have been exposed to radiation.
Elston “Swede” Stephenson — the safety, health, and wellness manager for the park — sent an email on February 4 to all park service employees describing the alleged cover-up. “If you were in the Museum Collections Building (2C) between the year 2000 and June 18, 2018, you were ‘exposed’ to uranium by OSHA’s definition. The radiation readings, at first blush, exceeds (sic) the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safe limits… Identifying who was exposed, and your exposure level, gets tricky and is our next important task.”
Stephenson claims the buckets (including one whose lid would not close because it was too full) were stored next to a taxidermy exhibit where children regularly stopped for presentations. Children sometimes spent 30 minutes or more in close proximity to the uranium ore. According to Stephenson, the buckets exposed adults to 400 times the health limit of what is considered safe radiation levels while children were exposed to 4,000 times the limit. It is yet undetermined if the alleged exposure could lead to any health issues.
Emily Davis, a public affairs specialist at the Grand Canyon, insists that since the uranium ore’s removal, current employees have nothing to worry about. “There is no current risk to the park employees or public,” she said. “The building is open… There’s no danger.” She did not, however, address Stephenson’s assertion that thousands of people and employees have already been exposed to the hazardous material over the past 18 years. Her only comment was, “We do take our public and employee safety and allegations seriously.”
Stephenson alleges that high-level officials in the National Park Service were guilty of forming a “secrecy pact” to hide radiation exposure data from the public, though there is not yet any concrete evidence to support his accusation.
An investigation with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Arizona Department of Health Services is currently underway.