Community continues pressure for cleanup
The SHAWL Society continues to educate people as it holds Newmont Mining Company, owner of the Midnite Mine Superfund Cleanup Site, accountable to remediation agreements to clean up radioactive contamination and toxic wastes on the Spokane Indian Reservation by 2025.
The contamination resulted from uranium mining there from 1955 to 1965 and from 1968 to 1981.
Deb Abrahamson founded the SHAWL (Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land) Society in 1994 to educate people and advocate for cleanup. Her daughter, Twa-le Abrahamson-Swan, helps lead the effort.
"It's been a long journey for us," said Deb at a community meeting on Feb. 26 at the Eastern Washington University Building at Riverpoint.
"We have been through changes, and borne the damage of the toxic environment ourselves," she said. "I am thankful the tribe is taking a strong stance and the next generation is taking over. We will continue to fight this and educate people on health costs to miners and their families, and on the destruction of the air, water and land."
In July 2018, two years after starting to clean up and stabilize contamination at the site, Newmont asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce the cleanup level approved in 2006, saying the site has naturally high levels of radium and lead, Twa-le said.
The SHAWL Society challenges the proposal, because relaxing levels continues health and safety risks.
The Midnite Mine, one of two mines on the reservation, is 45 minutes from Spokane. The Dawn Mill Site at Ford, also owned by Newmont, needs to be cleaned up, too. It is off the reservation so cleanup is under the Washington State Department of Health, said Twa-le.
The Sherwood Mine opened in 1978 when there were more regulations in place, including a requirement that the operator, Western Nuclear, Inc., have cleanup funds and a cleanup plan. It produced a lower grade of uranium and operated a shorter time. It closed in 1984 and reclamation was completed in 1996.
Newmont Mining, now the world's largest mining company with its recent purchase of Goldcorp, seeks to lower the standards to reduce its costs, Twa-le said. The company is responsible for cleanup costs beyond $42 million the U.S. Department of the Interior is paying because it failed to fulfill federal trust responsibilities to the Spokane Tribe by not providing oversight of the open-pit Midnite uranium mine.
The Midnite mine was dug so deep that it hit ground water, creating a problem with contaminated water in open pits containing radioactive materials and heavy metals—26 toxins.
The EPA's 2006 cleanup plan calls for filling those pits with waste rock and ore, and capping them with soil from nearby land.
Lawsuits and other delays stalled the work. It did not begin until 2016.
Water in the pits is currently treated and discharged into Blue Creek, which flows into the Spokane River. A new plant, planned to be built within a few years, will treat 50 million—not just 5 million—gallons a day. Sending treated water in pipes to Lake Roosevelt will reduce the impact on the creek, which the tribe seeks to re-establish for native redband trout, said Brian Crossley, the Tribe's natural resources water quality specialist.
Brian, who has worked 20 years on stream restoration, administering water quality standards for the tribe and EPA, showed aerial pictures of scars on the land from the Midnight Mine, Dawn Mill Site and Sherwood Mine.
"Dilution is the solution, rather than having water flow down Blue Creek. The treated water must meet tribal water quality standards, which are high," he said. "Piping does not go into effect until we build the new plant."
In a report prepared for the February meeting, Spokane Riverkeeper said the EPA set the cleanup level based on the "average background level of radium and undisturbed soil around the mine." The report says that:
• A public health assessment shows people using the mine-affected area for traditional and subsistence activities experience long-term exposure to contaminants that could have harmful effects. Those activities include drinking water from drainages and seeps; using that water in sweat lodge ceremonies; ingesting sediments, and eating plants, roots and fish.
• During mining years, employees were exposed to dust and brought it home to their families on their clothes.
• After the mine closed, there was no fence around the area so people could walk through the site. Water from the mine and mill sites percolated into groundwater and flowed down Tshimakain Creek and Blue Creek to the Spokane River, which is used for recreation, fishing and farming.
Twa-le said workers and family members continue to die. About 1,200 of the tribe's 2,800 members live on the 159,000-acre reservation. The tribe experiences a high rate of cancers, kidney disease, heart disease and neurological disorders. Seven tribal members died in March.
"Deaths happen weekly—young mothers and two elders last week," said Deb, who is being treated for stage four uterine cancer. "It's important to address our health needs. By-products of radiation continue for years."
Twa-le said radium, which can't be seen or smelled, can be inhaled, lodge in the lungs and continue exposure. Radioactivity is in the rocks, soil and air. It is concentrated in water and fish.
Deb and Twa-le are gathering data on deaths in the community and hope to involve rural health students at WSU to help with documentation.
Newmont purchased land on the reservation near the site, clear cut it, but now say they need more soil because the footprint is bigger, said Twa-le, noting that the tribe was unhappy the company bought reservation land for fill soil.
"It saved costs of trucking soil from off the reservation, but now there is damage from clearcutting and mud slides," she said. "The soil on the land they bought is also radioactive, so when they dig, more radiation is released."
Other concerns are deregulation and decreased funding of the EPA, weakening it and giving it fewer resources for research and enforcement, providing opportunity for Newmont to stall, change the timeline and cleanup levels, she said.
SHAWL is also concerned that continuity and "institutional memory" about agreements may be lost because of turnover of both reservation leadership and EPA staff, making community education more critical.
Linda Meyer, EPA remedial project manager for the Midnite Mine cleanup, is not new to the EPA but started on this project two weeks before the meeting. Two predecessors retired.
"Our job is to evaluate the proposed changes. It took years of technical assessments to put levels in place. We require a formal process with public input," she said. "My job is to be sure new technical assessment is sound. We seek to keep the mine on task."
Also new, Kay Morrison, EPA community involvement coordinator, is learning about the site and concerns as she works with tribal technical staff, tribal government and the mine.
Kay said the EPA plans a community meeting in April. The date and location will be announced at www.epa.gov/superfund/midnite-mine. The meeting will present the 2019 construction report, connect the community with an expert uranium advisor, report on outreach to the Center for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Control, and provide an update on the community involvement plan.
Discussion at the February meeting raised some concerns:
• Cheryl Joseph Butterfly, who lives on the reservations, asked the EPA to provide bottled water free for residents.
• Brian Cleary, counsel to the tribe, said Newmont may want to revisit levels, but is legally bound to the timeline.
• Margo Hill, a tribal citizen who grew up in Wellpinit and teaches in EWU's urban and regional planning program, said court cases and delays over 25 years mean contamination remains and impedes the sweathouse, root gathering, berry picking and basket making. She also called for a medical study on the cancer rates.
• Spokane Riverkeeper Jerry White offered to publish updates on spokaneriverkeeper.org/riverjournal.
• David Browneagle, former Spokane Tribal Council member, said that at a meeting held a few years ago at the federal building, "tribal citizens spoke, but neighboring farmers and ranchers stayed on the sides. I reminded them the water goes downstream. Farmers use it to irrigate. Ranchers give water to their animals. Everyone eats wheat and animals. The contamination does not stay on the reservation.
"We Native Americans talk about how we are all connected. If it hits my back yard, it hits your front yard. Everyone is affected by what we eat. If more understand that, they may get involved," he said. "We need to stand together as concerned citizens. Things happen if we write letters, make phone calls and speak with one voice."
• Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Council, said, "Radiation goes downriver and down wind. We need to come together to stand for what is right, to respect the land, air and water as gifts and to urge the EPA to have the company stick to the plan."
Closing the meeting, Twa-le called for public pressure "so our voices are heard and we can make a difference."
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April, 2019