Bill Chenoweth: A lifelong geologist, he’s spent his career making miners safe
Portrait 2011 — Volume 1: Leaving a legacy
The men who haunted the ruddy canyons of the Southwest in search of uranium probably were more likely to depend on their Geiger counters more than they did Bill Chenoweth, but only by a little bit.
Now, half a century or more later, Chenoweth, 82, still figures largely in the lives of those same uranium miners, millers and haulers who now are paying with their lungs and lives for the days they spent hammering steel into the sandstones of the Colorado Plateau in search of element No. 92 on the periodic table.
Of course, many of those men are long dead, so Chenoweth plays a role in the lives of their widows, children and grandchildren, a role few ever will know.
Chenoweth traveled the Southwest on behalf of the Atomic Energy Commission, then the Energy Department, as a geologist and as a branch chief for both agencies, mapping mines, studying uranium resources and generally keeping his finger on the pulse of the uranium business and the people who ran it.
The latter expertise has been particularly helpful since the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act became law in 1990 and the U.S. Justice Department was placed in charge of evaluating the claims of miners, millers and haulers suffering from terminal diseases for compassionate payments from a government grateful for their Cold War efforts.
Problem was, some of the companies involved in the uranium industry — for which the only buyer was the U.S. government — kept good records, others not so much. Some kept no records at all and in other cases, miners worked their own dog holes — small mines from which the miners would emerge prairie-dog-like on their own time and without keeping much in the way of records.
When the Radiation Compensation Exposure Act was approved, Chenoweth’s expertise about the rock and the men who worked it became invaluable.
Chenoweth is “the foundation we built this program on,” said Jerry Fischer, who heads the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., which has awarded more than $1.5 billion in compassionate payments to those miners, millers and haulers, downwinders and others.
No small amount of that recognition is based on Chenoweth’s work. He regularly meets with new claims examiners and teaches the way the uranium industry worked and takes them on tours of the uranium country of the high Colorado Plateau and the mines that were punched into its dusty, red surface.
“Bill has consistently gone above the call of duty” to deal with claims, Fischer said. “But for his personal knowledge and personal involvement, many of these folks would not have had their claims adjudicated.”
Becky Rockwell, a Durango investigator who helps terminally ill workers, frequently relying on Chenoweth, as well, put it more succinctly:
“Google can’t hold a candle to his wealth of knowledge.”
Chenoweth was the Google of the Colorado Plateau before search engines were even the stuff of dreams.
Back in the late ’90s, Fischer recalled, Chenoweth took him on a tour of the back roads of western Colorado to different mines with which he had worked. Chenoweth warned him that they would go long distances without seeing another human.
“We stopped three times and each time we run into people he knows,” Fischer said. “One of them was an engineer from Japan who had worked with Chenoweth in the Four Corners area in the ’60s. Each recognized the other, Fischer said.
“He’s retired and Bill’s still working,” Fischer said with a laugh.
When Rockwell needed some details about mining in the Lukachukai Mountains of Arizona, “One phone call to Bill filled in all the blanks that I was unable to locate anywhere else,” she said.
Chenoweth, who grew up in Wichita, Kan., and attended the University of Wichita studying veterinary medicine, switched midway through to geology.
The problem was that in Kansas, “There weren’t any rocks to look at,” Chenoweth said.
He solved that problem on a family trip to Carlsbad, N.M., where he found plenty of rocks ready to be examined and a long-term future in the Southwest.
Chenoweth earned his master’s degree in geology from the University of New Mexico. During his studies, he worked for the Atomic Energy Commission, which prevailed on him to continue working after Chenoweth got his degree. The agency’s bargaining position wasn’t hurt by the fact that it underwrote his master’s thesis.
Offered the choice to work out of Grand Junction or Shiprock, N.M., Chenoweth opted for the latter, reasoning that the $6.50 per day hardship pay for the Shiprock job would go a long way toward the budget.
It was in Shiprock that he met Miriam, a nurse at the Shiprock Indian Hospital, whom he married 56 years ago.
It was there that he also walked into the Rattlesnake Mine, so named for the pattern of yellow uranium-bearing and black vanadium-bearing minerals found within, accompanied by a geology graduate from an eastern university “with no experience in mines,” Chenoweth wrote in a recollection for The Geology Society of America.
Halfway down the two met three Navajo miners headed in the opposite direction.
“I began to wonder why they were leaving,” Chenoweth wrote. “A short time later, one of the miners called out in broken English, ‘Fire in the hole.’ My partner asked what that meant. I said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.’ ”
Chenoweth and his companion made for the mine mouth.
“When we emerged, we were met by laughing miners who just scared two white guys,” Chenoweth wrote. “After that, we became friends with Earl Saltwater and his crew and finished the mapping with their assistance.”
Chenoweth remained with the commission as it was transformed into the Energy Department and moved to Grand Junction in 1964.
He would have stayed with the agency, but officials told him in 1983 that he had to move to Washington, D.C., or lose his job.
“I thought, I’ll take my chances,” Chenoweth said.
Sure enough, he was working for the federal government again soon, this time as a consultant, remaining in Grand Junction.
With the advent of the compensation act, Chenoweth and his impeccable memory went to work for the Justice Department, helping to separate deserving claims from those that just don’t qualify, Fischer said.
“He has not slowed down a bit and his tenacity in looking for the needle in the haystack never ceases to amaze us,” Fischer said.
A claimant might, for instance, say he had worked in a mine that Chenoweth knew had been closed two years before the claimant said he’d worked there.
It’s on that basis that Justice knows it’s on solid ground in denying the claim, just as Chenoweth’s research is the key to approving claims, he said.
“On so many levels,” Fischer said, Chjenoweth “is a national treasure.”