Radioactivity on the Spokane Reservation

June 5, 2011 12:00 a.m.  •  1 comment

Uranium ore was blasted out of the Spokane Reservation’s arid hillsides and sold to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The truckloads of radioactive material that rumbled daily through the reservation helped build the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the 1950’s. The mines closed 30 years ago, but they’ve left a complex legacy of pride, patriotism and radioactive pollution on the 157,000-acre reservation west of Spokane.

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One night in 1954, twin brothers Jim and John LeBret were prospecting on the Spokane Reservation with a Geiger counter and mineral light. Shortly after midnight, their Geiger counter roared to life. On Spokane Mountain, they had discovered rocks with a fluorescent green glow. The brothers, members of the Spokane Tribe, staked the first uranium claim on the reservation. By December of that year, the Midnite Mine shipped its first load of uranium ore to a Salt Lake City processing plant. It was the beginning of “uranium fever” on the reservation.

Becky Kramer, The Spokesman-Review Link

John LaBret (cq) points to a “hot” spot while his twin brother James tests for radioactivity with a Geiger Counter at the future Midnite Mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation in a 1954.

Photo Archive The Spokesman-Review Link

For nearly three decades, uranium was a booming industry on the reservation. At its height, about 500 people drew paychecks from the mines and their ore processing facilities.

Becky Kramer, The Spokesman-Review Link

John C. LeBret and James V. LeBret, discoverers of the Midnight uranium mine on the Spokane Indian reservation, are shown atop their first carload shipment of ore shortly before it left the Union Pacific yards in December, 1954, bound for Vitro Chemical company’s processing plant near Salt Lake City. James is holding a “hot” rock under a Geiger counter (device for measuring radioactivity) held by Robert J. Hundhausen, bureau of mines’ engineer.

Photo Archive The Spokesman-Review Link

Connie LeBret was hired at the Midnite Mine in her 20s. “A lot of people worked at those mines,” she said. “It was really a good time because everyone had a job and had money to do things.”


Her hands crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, Connie LeBret holds her granddaughter. LeBret worked at the Midnite Mine and wonders if the uranium exposure contributed to her illness. Rhematoid arthritis’s cause
isn’t known, but environmental factors are thought to play a role.

Jed Conklin Special to The Spokesman-Review Link

Over the past 30 years, Harold Campbell, volunteer gravedigger, has helped prepared the final resting spots for hundreds of the tribe’s members. Death is a familiar presence to Campbell, who sits with grieving families and blesses burial plots with the fragrant smoke of sage and sweetgrass. Yet one aspect troubles him: Too many Spokane Indians die from cancer. “I watch them die, young and old,” Campbell said. “I think it’s caused by the radiation.”

Becky Kramer, The Spokesman-Review Link

Harold Campbell, 53, worked at both the Midnite and Sherwood Mine and was raised in Uranium City where his father worked nearby at the Dawn Mining’s Ford mill site. He remembers his fathers dusty clothes and the uranium crystals he brought home for Campbell and his brother to play with. Campbell is currently recovering from prostate cancer.

Jed Conklin Special to The Spokesman-Review Link

Campbell spent his early years in Uranium City, a collection of houses and trailers that sprung up down the road from Dawn Mining’s Ford mill site, where the ore was processed. As a kid, he played in the dust underneath the haul trucks. His dad, a millwright, collected ore samples for Campbell and his older brother. “Dad used to bring home some of those pretty green rocks,” said Campbell, 53. “We didn’t know there was a problem.”

Becky Kramer, The Spokesman-Review Link

The green shimmer of uranium was presumed to be harmless by many of the workers on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Jed Conklin Special to The Spokesman-Review Link

Houses once used by mill managers and workers in Uranium City were sold and moved to other locations, like this one in Wellpinit. Many haven’t been tested for uranium dust.

Jed Conklin Special to The Spokesman-Review Link

The Midnite Mine site needs extensive remediation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which crafted the plan. Two open pits remain at the mine. Five other pits were filled in with “really nasty stuff” that’s polluting the groundwater, Connolly said. Towering waste rock piles litter the mine site. The haul roads were built with radioactive gravel.

Becky Kramer, The Spokesman-Review Link

Midnite Mine, the Northwest’s only open-pit uranium mine, provided the radioactive material for nuclear weapons on energy closed operations in 1981.

Jed Conklin Special to The Spokesman-Review Link

Nearly 3 million tons of uranium ore were blasted out of these hillsides. Visitors can stand at the top of Pit No. 3 and look down 500 feet to the pit’s bottom, which is covered with sparkling turquoise water.

Becky Kramer, The Spokesman-Review Link

Core samples drilled at the Midnite Mine remain in storage at the mine site. The samples were used to determine where the ore body was.

Jed Conklin Special to The Spokesman-Review Link

Under orders from the federal government, Dawn Mining collects and treats water from the site before pumping it into Blue Creek, a tributary of the Spokane River. The treatment removes radioactive materials and heavy metals. But the tribe’s monitoring indicates that pollution levels are still high enough to kill aquatic insects in Blue Creek, Randy Connolly, the Spokane Tribe’s Superfund coordinator, said.

Becky Kramer, The Spokesman-Review Link

Blue Creek runs between the Midnite and Sherwood Uranium Mines on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Currently water treated to remove radioactive waste and heavy metals are pumped into Blue Creek. Blue Creek flows into the Spokane arm of Lake Roosevelt.

Jed Conklin Special to The Spokesman-Review Link

The federal government recommends spending no more than one hour a day at the mine site to limit exposure to radiation and radon gas. People shouldn’t eat berries or plants gathered from the Blue Creek drainage where the mine is located, or fish from the creek, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Meat from deer and elk that forage in the drainage could also pose health risks, the study said.

Becky Kramer, The Spokesman-Review Link

High sulfate levels, caused from treated water pumped from the Midnite Mine, are found in Blue Creek. Sulfate levels affect the health of emerging trout fry according to Brian Crossley is the Water & Fish Program Manager at the Spokane Tribe of Indians. It is unknown if pollutants from Midnite Mine affect fish in Blue Creek or Lake Roosevelt. “In order to say the fish are safe to eat, there must be analysis of the fish,” said Crossley.

Jed Conklin Special to The Spokesman-Review Link

The Environmental Protection Agency ran models, assessing how people’s cancer risk would increase if they lived at the Midnite Mine for 70 years, or gathered plants, hunted game and drank surface water from the site as part of a subsistence lifestyle. An individual who lived off the land at the mine site, for example, would have a 1 in 5 probability of getting cancer, according to the modeling. The model was based on 70 years of exposure to pre-cleanup conditions.

Becky Kramer, The Spokesman-Review Link

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) advises people not to eat meat, like this elk, or the roots, berries and fish from the Blue Creek drainage because they may be contaminated by the Midnite Mine.

Jed Conklin Special to The Spokesman-Review Link

Many members of the Spokane Tribe heed the ATSDR warnings and do not dig roots, like this bitterroot, in the Blue Creek drainage. Instead they collect traditional foods in other locations including public and private land outside of the reservation. “We used to go to rockypoint (a root digging spot located between Midnite and Sherwood mines) but we have stopped doing all gatherings around Blue Creek’” said Deb Abrahamson.

Jed Conklin Special to The Spokesman-Review Link

Deb Abrahamson, the founder of the Society to advocate for cleanup of radioactive waste (SHAWL) performs a traditional smudge (blessing) with angel sage. Abrahamson, a tribal activist, strives to bring awareness to the uranium mining on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Jed Conklin Special to The Spokesman-Review Link

Tribal activist Deb Abrahamson’s focus is gradually shifting. Instead of lobbying for cleanup, she’s starting to work on safety for future cleanup workers. Through the lure of paychecks and steady employment, the cleanup will have parallels to the original uranium rush. “Those jobs are going to look very lucrative to this generation,” Abrahamson said. This time around, she want wants to ensure that workers have proper protective gear and know the risks. Otherwise, another generation could be exposed to radiation, Abrahamson said.

Becky Kramer, The Spokesman-Review Link

Life goes on in the Spokane Indian Reservation. Health risks are possible but for those who live on the reservation, living next to a uranium mine is just a way of life.

Jed Conklin Special to The Spokesman-Review Link


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