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SHAWL Society pursues protection of Spokane Reservation area contaminated by mine waste


In Native American tradition, a women’s shawl dance that is being revived in powwows tells of rebirth and transformation as the dancer wraps her shawl around herself like a cocoon and then opens it to dance as a butterfly.

Deb Abrahamson
Deb Abrahamson at Midnite Mine site

That metaphor coincides with the change members of the SHAWL Society seek as they work to clean up the radioactive contamination and toxic wastes that remain on the Spokane Reservation from uranium mining there from 1955 to 1981.

The name stands for Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land, said Deb Abrahamson, founder and director, who devotes time and energy to protecting the reservation and promoting understanding of the issues.

“A shawl represents protection,” she pointed out.

 Dawn Mining Co. excavated six pits for ore, leaving about 2.4 million tons of uranium ore and 33 million tons of waste rock on 400 acres near inactive open-pit mines eight miles northeast of Wellpinit and three miles north of the Spokane arm of Lake Roosevelt.

“The Midnite Mine, which started to supply uranium for nuclear weapons, has created a long-life, toxic, radioactive, environmental hazard that affects the people’s health and culture,” said Tim Connor of the Sierra Club’s Spokane River and Aquifer Project. 

Shannon Work
Shannon Work

Shannon Work, an attorney for the tribe, said that before the Superfund process began, Dawn Mining Co. did some clean-up for six months and then claimed bankruptcy, even though it is still alive and funded by Newmont. 

With the Midnite Mine identified as a federal Superfund cleanup site, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigated it, consulted with the Spokane Tribe and then recommended options for remediation in September.  It is receiving public comments on the options until Jan. 18.

With the Sierra Club, the SHAWL Society is educating the public, so more people can send comments to the EPA and Congress by the deadline.

At a recent educational program, Rick Eickstaedt of the Center for Justice added that the Superfund Law, which was part of the Comprehensive Environmental Compensation Act passed in 1980, also includes evaluation of the effectiveness of the remedy and recovery of cleanup costs from the owners.

Harold Campbell tells Tim Connor about his experience driving a truck for the mine.

In a summary they prepared, Tim, Deb and her daughter Twa-le Abrahamson explained that “health risks come from heavy metals, radioactive particles and gases, and chemicals.  Environmental hazards include sulfate from acid-rock drainage contaminating ground water and surface water that drain into Blue Creek and then the Spokane River arm of Lake Roosevelt three miles from the mine.  Of six pits, two are still open and partly filled with water.”

Dawn Mining, operated by Newmont Mines, still pumps contaminated water from a drainage area below the main waste rock pile and open pits to a water treatment plant that discharges water into a tributary of Blue Creek.

Midnite Mine
Open pit at the Midnite Mine

Tim summarized options the EPA proposed:  1) no action, 2) fencing and monitoring—neither acceptable—3) grading the contaminated open pit, leaving two pits open and putting cover soil over 260 acres; 4) partially backfilling two open pits and covering them with soil, and 5) completely backfilling open pits with waste rock, covering them with a liner and soil to reduce the footprint to 97 acres and draining water to a new treatment plant to treat contaminated water in perpetuity—longer than 140 years or seven generations.

In the fifth option, the EPA’s preferred one, before filling the pits, a drainage layer and thick plastic liner would cover the bottoms and part way up the sides to capture rainwater and snowmelt, and to keep groundwater from entering the pits, he described.

The Spokane Tribe prefers a variation of option five, adding removal material from existing waste-filled pits and reburial in the open pits, reducing the “footprint” to 80 acres.

Tim said there is no way to undo the drainage problem, so there is a long-term need to control land use, maintain the water drainage and treatment systems, and deal with sulfate in the watershed.

Other issues include: 1) contaminated groundwater bypassing the system through fractures in bedrock; 2) public health risks; 3) potential unreliability of the buried drainage system, 4) unknowns about the long half-life of the hazards, and 5) bringing herbicide-pesticide-free soil from outside the reservation for cover, to avoid sacrificing another ecosystem on the reservation.

Deb and Twa-le described the need for multi-generational education about the spread of the toxic waste and its effects on the people and culture.

“People do not know to stay out of the site because of health dangers,” Deb said, telling of a tribal hunter who recently shot a llama near the site.

Although uranium mining made the United States what it is today, there was no analysis of the impact on our people, said Deb, whose father, grandparents and uncles worked on the site. 

“Few old-timers remain.  The median age of the 2,300 people is now 26,” she said.

“Our people never had a full say in establishing the mine because of internal marginalization,” she explained.  “After the Homestead Act opened reservation land to homesteaders, many people were adopted into the tribe.   That helped disempower and disenfranchise our people. 

Deb Abrahamson
Deb Abrahamson talks with a SHAWL Board member.

“In addition, the tribe did not have the money or education to battle it.  Our grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts never knew about the danger. 

“They worked in the mine and brought back yellow cake.  My father, who worked double shifts, was not told he was bringing  that radioactive material home,” Deb said.  “The tribal health educator and teachers either lacked information or were in denial. 

“We did not link deaths to the mine.  Our primary care provider, Indian Health Services, was a government arm, so why would it gather data for baseline health survey on radiation?”

Deb said spiritual traditions may spread contamination:

“To teach traditional ways, we put our youth in harm’s way,” Deb said.  “How can we protect our roots, our water, our sacred stories? 

“If we do not sit at tables where decisions are made, our problems will continue,” she added, urging the tribe to connect with such community and environmental advocacy groups.

To teach people about dangers, Twa-le prepared a slide show for SHAWL’s youth multimedia and video project, showing contaminated areas on the reservation:

Along with warning signs along Blue Creek and at the campground, Twa-le proposes a baseline health study by the Center for Disease Control.

The SHAWL Society wants Blue Creek protected so it meets state and tribal water-quality standards; a minimal footprint of restricted land use and access; reliable funding sources for the water system, and integration of tribal sovereignty, traditional ecological knowledge and subsistence practices to ensure cultural resources for future generations.

With the long life of radioactive materials, they know education will be required forever.

For information, call 747-3115.


By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - © January 2006