Uranium Scare Exposes Grand Canyon’s Toxic Function Culture

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On December 31, 2018, Elston Stephenson, the security, well being, and wellness manager for Grand Canyon National Park, emailed then interior secretary Ryan Zinke with a dire warning: “Sir, regrettably, it is not hyperbole to say that primarily based on exposure prices and quantity of victims, Grand Canyon National Park may possibly have suffered one particular of the worst nuclear incidents in the Nation’s history.” The message was referring to 3 buckets of uranium ore identified seven months earlier in a Museum Collection facility about a mile from the park’s headquarters.  

A small more than a month later, on February four, 2019, Stephenson sent a memo to park personnel: “If You have been in the Museum Collections constructing among the year 2000 and June 18, 2018, you have been exposed to uranium by the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] definition.” 

On February 18, the news went viral when the Arizona Republic ran a story with a headline that declared: “Grand Canyon vacationers exposed for years to radiation in museum constructing, security manager says.” Stephenson had contacted the paper, claiming that park officials have been attempting to hide the information and facts about the uranium ore. 

Regardless of the juicy headlines, the National Park Service’s Intermountain Regional Workplace (IMR) had notified Stephenson and the park’s senior leadership in August 2018 that the concern had been resolved when the ore was removed from the museum collections constructing by the IMR’s radiation security officer, who was sent to the scene in June to deal with it.

Preliminary findings from the Park Service’s investigation into the claims of radiation exposure, released final March, concluded that there was “no present uranium ore exposure.” The challenge, according to the complete report of the investigation, released in July, was that the radiation security officer’s radiation-measuring device was incorrectly calibrated, causing elevated readings. There was in no way any danger of radiation exposure from the buckets of ore in the museum collections facility. 

The uranium debacle was an additional loose boulder in a continuous rockslide of troubles at the Grand Canyon. 3 years earlier, the park was scandalized when an investigation by the Division of the Interior (DOI) revealed a extended-standing culture of bullying and sexual harassment there. Chris Lehnertz was named superintendent in the wake of that crisis, with a mandate to repair the park’s toxic culture.  

But in October 2018, Lehnertz was temporarily reassigned even though the DOI’s Workplace of Inspector Common (OIG) launched an investigation into what eventually turned out to be baseless accusations produced against her. She was scheduled to return to her post on February 20, 2019, but the false claims driving the uranium panic proved to be the final straw. Instead she chose to retire—the individual hired to bring order to the chaos had been swept away by it.  


Lehnertz began at the Grand Canyon in September 2016. As the park’s initially female and openly gay superintendent, her motto was: “Grand Canyon’s priority is to develop a respectful and inclusive workplace.” She implemented a novel management strategy that sought to heal a traumatized workforce, weed out bullies, and make personnel really feel protected to speak up. But not every person embraced her strategies, which were designed to guard workers from retaliation and hostility. 

The complaint filed against Lehnertz in October 2018 charged that she “created a hostile operate atmosphere and engaged in bullying and retaliatory behavior against senior leaders, especially male leaders.” Though names in the official report from the inspector general’s investigation into the allegations against her have been withheld, documents shared with Outdoors by senior executives at the park show that the complaint was filed by Grand Canyon deputy superintendent Brian Drapeaux. (When reached for comment about the complaint, Drapeaux mentioned he could not “discuss any personnel-associated troubles as they are protected by law, and any breach could jeopardize the careers of these that divulge this variety of protected information and facts.”)

Drapeaux had been transferred to the Grand Canyon and produced deputy superintendent there in 2014, even though he was being investigated for ethics violations as chief of employees for the Bureau of Indian Education. (The investigation identified ethics violations relating to a contract awarded to a former employer and retaliation taken against an employee who objected to the conflict of interest.) He temporarily served as Grand Canyon superintendent through Lehnertz’s reassignment and immediately after she resigned.

The inspector general’s investigation exonerated Lehnertz of the allegations produced against her. At the similar time, it also documented shortcomings in Drapeaux’s overall performance. It described Drapeaux’s failure to full tasks and attend meetings on a “high priority park initiative.” The investigation also revealed that he refused to conduct a critique of an employee he managed as essential beneath his job duties. “I will not supply it to [Lehnertz] so that she can use it as a weapon,” he told investigators, stating that he believed Lehnertz wanted to fire the employee. The investigation also identified that Lehnertz was justified in providing Drapeaux a one particular-day suspension for his failure to evaluate the employee. Documents shared with Outdoors show that the employee not receiving adequately reviewed was the park’s security manager, Stephenson.


The uranium ore that triggered the most recent scandal came from the Orphan Mine, which operated in Grand Canyon National Park from 1956 to 1969. It was brought to the park’s Museum Collections constructing in 2000 as component of an work to document park history and sat in buckets close to a taxidermy cabinet exactly where thousands of guests passed by more than the years on tours of the facility. 

Although dust from the ore can be hazardous to human well being, the actual rocks emit extremely low amounts of radiation—no extra than a individual would be exposed to when hiking in the Grand Canyon. A study carried out in 2000 confirmed that radiation readings from the uranium-ore samples in the Museum Collections constructing have been no greater than background levels in the rest of the park.

Right after finding out about the buckets of ore in June 2018 through the park’s annual security, well being, and environmental audit, Stephenson, the park’s security manager, contacted the IMR for on-website technical help. The IMR dispatched a radiation security officer, who arrived 3 days later. 

When the IMR radiation security officer waived his radiation detector more than the buckets, the readings have been above background levels, so he advised that they be removed. Grand Canyon senior employees would not obtain the actual information from the security officer’s readings for two extra months, but given his specialist background and part inside the Park Service, the employees trusted his assessment and followed his recommendation to resolve the predicament. (The security officer and park employees did not know at the time that the radiation-measuring device was incorrectly calibrated and that there was no actual well being danger posed by the buckets with the ore.) 

Federal protocol for dealing with radioactive mine waste specifies that the buckets ought to have been place in a designated hazmat locker at the park and a business specializing in radioactive waste hired to retrieve and dispose of the ore at an EPA-authorized website outdoors the park.

Alternatively, according to the Park Service investigation into the claims of radiation exposure carried out final spring and released in July, the security officer and his wife, a certified radiation-technician contractor, applied plastic dishwashing gloves and a mop to transfer the toxic components from the museum collections facility to the Orphan Mine, now a Superfund website. Stephenson went along to assistance. Wearing the gloves, the radiation security officer picked up the buckets with the mop manage and hoisted them into the bed of Stephenson’s truck. Park employees instructed the security officer to leave the ore in the buckets at the mine website to adhere to EPA Superfund regulations, but the officer decided to bury the rocks so they weren’t visible. Then he rinsed out the plastic paint buckets and returned them to the constructing.

On August 13, 2018, the IMR released the findings from the radiation readings taken at the Grand Canyon Museum Collections building two months earlier. The private memo was sent to Lehnertz, Drapeaux, and Stephenson. The report stated the “results have been constructive for radioactivity above background.” Even so, simply because the rocks had been subsequently removed, the report implied that the concern had been resolved.

Why was no more action taken final summer time immediately after seeing the elevated readings? “Uranium ore rocks typically pose a low-danger hazard. NPS management believed that no quick additional action was required,” Marco De Leon, public affairs chief for the IMR, explained in an e mail to Outdoors. He also noted that Park Service managers have been relying on the measurements from the 2000 study rather than the “hasty” survey carried out in June 2018.

The subsequent step was for the park’s senior employees to draft a response to the security audit, a activity Lehnertz assigned to Drapeaux and Stephenson. But the response was in no way submitted. In October, Lehnertz was all of a sudden reassigned when the inspector general opened its investigation into Drapeaux’s accusations.


Regardless of the IMR’s conclusion that the uranium ore posed no danger, Stephenson came to think otherwise, primarily based on the erroneous readings taken in June by the IMR radiation security officer. With Lehnertz absent due to the inspector general’s investigation final fall, he reported the erroneous readings from the June 2018 inspection to OSHA. As Stephenson’s boss, Drapeaux was accountable for reviewing such claims prior to they have been shared. (Each Drapeaux and Stephenson, when reached by Outdoors, declined to comment on the choice to get in touch with OSHA.) 

Employees from OSHA’s Phoenix workplace produced a surprise stop by on November 28, 2018. Wearing head-to-toe hazmat suits, they waived their monitors about the Museum Collections constructing as terrified employees looked on. Almost everything registered standard except a slightly elevated reading from the region about the empty plastic buckets, which have been then removed.

uranium
(Photo: Courtesy Elston Stephenson)

Protected from losing his job by federal whistleblower laws, Stephenson forged on. In a December 19 e mail to Zachary Barnett, the director of Arizona’s OSHA workplace, Stephenson mentioned: “Zach, the numbers are off the charts. I think with respect to each the numbers in and of themselves, and the attempts at covering up and denying this information and facts to personnel, we are in criminal conduct territory.”

In addition to emailing Zinke shortly immediately after the OSHA inspection, Stephenson also contacted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Arizona Division of Overall health Solutions, the FBI, and every single member of Congress. 

Points cooled through the government shutdown final winter. But when Grand Canyon personnel have been back at operate in early February, Stephenson sent out his warning to park employees. He also described how Park Service officials had attempted to hide the readings, how he sought outdoors assistance, and how the public should be notified. Shortly immediately after that, he contacted the Arizona Republic.

Alternatively of sending out press releases about the Grand Canyon’s centennial celebration, park spokesperson Emily Davis worked to tamp down public alarm. “There is no present danger to the park personnel or public,” she insisted in the Arizona Republic post. Requests for calm took a back seat. Park Service officials offered no proof at the time to counter Stephenson’s claims, regardless of the IMR’s conclusion in August that the challenge had been resolved and OSHA’s inspection in December. 

Right after the Arizona Republic story came out, the Park Service announced its official investigation of the uranium identified in the Museum Collections constructing. De Leon told Outdoors that it was also the initially time the agency took a closer appear at the elevated numbers identified by the IMR radiation security officer the prior June. “NPS authorities carried out an more internal critique of the 2018 website-stop by trip report, observed that readings appeared unusually higher, and informed management the readings have been probably inaccurate,” mentioned De Leon. He added that it was “out of an abundance of caution” that the Park Service then commissioned a study to get an more third-celebration opinion, from Aecom Technical Solutions.  

Outdoors asked Mark Loeffler, a physicist at Northern Arizona University who research radiation effects, to evaluate the Park Service conclusions from the study. “I agree with the Grand Canyon security and well being-critique team’s assessment,” mentioned Loeffler immediately after comparing the information from different reports. “They have been quite transparent about correcting the error produced by the radiation security officer. There is practically nothing for me to suspect they are hiding something.”

Preliminary benefits from the Park Service’s third-celebration study of doable uranium contamination at the Grand Canyon Museum Collections building were publicly released final March and confirmed that the security officer’s readings have been erroneous. (The Arizona Republic followed up its reporting with the information of these findings in March as properly as the report from the complete investigation that was released in July.)

Lehnertz requested that senior officials at the DOI give her authority to reel in Grand Canyon personnel sending out false statements, but the DOI told her that she could not take disciplinary action against them when she returned to the park simply because of the doable perception of retaliation, according to documents obtained by Outdoors. She was told this regardless of Drapeaux’s failure to fulfill essential job duties as documented in the inspector general’s investigation of his accusation against Lehnertz as properly as his and Stephenson’s failure to full their responsibilities with regards to the 2018 security-audit response.   

“Chris is not protected there,” Lehnertz’s lawyer, Kevin Evans, told Outdoors in March. He was representing Lehnertz in an try to negotiate acceptable situations with the DOI for her return to the park. 

According to sources close to her, the uranium scandal was the final straw for Lehnertz in terms of tolerating what she claims have been false allegations aimed at sabotaging her capability to lead. She ultimately decided to retire rather than go back to a job exactly where she believed some senior managers have been maligning her with impunity. 

Given that her resignation, anger and confusion have swirled like dust devils at the Grand Canyon. “Chris was the leader that Grand Canyon required,” lamented one particular former Grand Canyon employee, who asked to stay anonymous and transferred to an additional park due to what they deemd as hostile operating situations. “The systems that have been place in location to guard personnel are as an alternative becoming abused by negative actors.”

A longtime senior executive at the Grand Canyon, who also asked to stay anonymous for worry of retaliation, attributed the uranium debacle to a lack of leadership that permitted dysfunction to spread. For most of the previous year, the DOI, Park Service, and the IMR have all had acting directors. And the Grand Canyon has had a rotating cast of acting superintendents. 

“Employees at Grand Canyon who want to do the appropriate factor get squashed, and personnel who want to do incorrect endure no consequences,” mentioned the executive. “The excellent news is most Grand Canyon personnel get up every single day and do their jobs anyway, simply because they have a greater calling.”

Lead Photo: Instants/iStock

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