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