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SHAWL Society maintains vigilance as Superfund cleanup begins

Even though the U.S. government reached an agreement with Newmont Mining Co. and its subsidiary Dawn Mining to spend $193 million to clean up the Midnite Mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation, the SHAWL Society will continue to monitor the process.

The U.S. Department of the Interior will add $42 million to cleanup efforts because it failed to fulfill federal trust responsibilities to the Spokane Tribe in providing oversight of the open-pit Midnite uranium mine.

Deb Abrahamson

Deb Abrahamson was recently honored as
a 2012 Watershed Hero

Deb Abrahamson, founder of the Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land Society (SHAWL), said the tribe in the fall also received a Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Process grant through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help address health impacts for former uranium workers.

With promises of jobs and royalties for the Spokane Tribe, the Midnite Mine opened near Wellpinit, Wash., in 1953 to produce uranium for nuclear arms.  The mine closed in 1981.  The Dawn Mill Site is still open.  Concern continues regarding the effects of the mine and mill sites on the health of former workers and the environment along the Blue Creek and the Spokane River.

With the reservation checker-boarded with private land owned by descendants of homesteaders and tribal people who gave up land to shop owners to pay off debts, Deb is concerned that the mining company is purchasing such parcels within the reservation for cleanup purposes or future resource extraction.

As a result, an emphasis of SHAWL’s effort is community education, so tribal members are informed of and involved in the mine closure process.  In addition, SHAWL is working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop strategies.

“From 2006 until recently, there were no public meetings on the mines,” Deb said.  “The community needs to know about the closure process, the employment available, the health hazards associated with that employment and the closure, and the impacts on the environment.”

Recently, she said, the mine purchased 80 acres adjacent to the mine site.  She has learned that the mine plans to clear cut that land, take off two feet of topsoil and dig the next six feet to use as clean fill for the closure.

“It’s cost effective for the mine,” she said, “but it will further destroy the reservation.  This proposal was not included in the plan.  They say they will give the land back to the tribe, but it will take years to regrow the trees, and it’s an elk habitat.”

She is also concerned that the mine company is arranging another purchase behind closed doors.  So SHAWL wants to keep tribal members and the community aware of what is happening.

“What are our rights when corporations come in and want to destroy land?” Deb asked.  “We hope that with pressure from the people we can reverse the decision.”

Deb said that if the mine buys land within the reservation to dig, there may be no environmental impact statement or any cultural assessment.

“One site in that area was widely used by our ancestors,” she said.

“It was not our original understanding of the cleanup process that they would dig holes within the reservation to fill the open pits,” she said, “but the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed, saying that if they take the topsoil off and put it back on, it’s permitted.”

SHAWL will present those concerns at the next General Council of tribal members in April.

Deb also wonders whether in digging, cleanup workers may uncover and expose more uranium.

The Spokane Tribe hopes that the cleanup process will employ people on the reservation, but this time with safety protections to prevent health consequences, she said.

“People, especially those living along the roadway, have the right to know the waste will be coming through their community,” she continued, telling of a truck that went off the road and sank into a ditch near wetlands and a bird sanctuary near Reardan.

Another issue is whether the gravel pit over the major aquifer may be pierced in the process.

On each of the issues, Deb said there is need for transparency around receipt of the grant by four entities involved: the Spokane Tribe, SHAWL, Portland Area Indian Health Service and Epidemiology Center, and the local Indian Health Service Clinic.  They collaborated to develop the grant. Since they received the funds, there is a need for transparency, accountability and oversight, she said.

When Deb visited the Navajo Tribe in New Mexico to learn about its efforts to clean up, those she met reinforced the need to take precautions and assure oversight.

“While only one person on the Spokane Reservation has been compensated for health issues, nearly 1,500 in the Navajo Tribe and surrounding communities have been compensated through the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act,” she said.

So the SHAWL Society will continue to monitor protection of the health of the land, the water and the people.

“Our work is far from over,” she said, listing the need to protect archaeological sites and the new generation of cleanup workers, who may forget how their parents and grandparents died.

To further her work with the tribe, Deb plans to study for a master’s degree in tribal governance at Evergreen College in Olympia.

“We wish to return to the value of paying it forward to care for the next generation,” she said.

Among recent gatherings to inform tribal members, SHAWL held a “Water Is Life” gathering in October on the reservation.  It included a time for prayer and for elders to address the role of the people to protect their water. 

For information, call 258-8952 or visit