An international mining corporation must share the cost of cleaning up an abandoned uranium mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation, a federal judge has ruled.
Newmont Mining Corp. holds majority interest in Dawn Mining Co., which until 1981 operated the Midnite Mine. The Environmental Protection Agency identified the open-pit uranium mine, now a Superfund site, as the source of radiation and heavy metals and acid contamination in Blue Creek, which flows into Lake Roosevelt at the mouth of the Spokane River.
Judge Justin Quackenbush, ruling Monday from the bench in U.S. District Court in Spokane, held the Denver-based Newmont partially liable for the contamination. Previous rulings hold the federal government and Dawn Mining liable as well.
“This is an important ruling for the health of tribal members and the protection of our precious natural resources,” said Greg Abrahamson, chairman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council.
Dawn Mining officials in Spokane and Nevada and a Newmont official in Denver were unavailable for comment Tuesday afternoon.
If it withstands appeal, the decision means taxpayers won’t have to bear as much of the estimated $152 million cost of cleaning up the mine, which operated from 1955 to 1981 except for four years in the late 1960s.
After the price of uranium dropped, the operators left open pits on about 350 acres of the reservation 45 miles northwest of Spokane. The area is contaminated with radium-226, uranium-238 and lead-210.
In 2005, the U.S. Justice Department sued Dawn and Newmont for the cleanup costs. In 2006, the EPA selected a cleanup plan that involves dumping mine waste in the open pits, covering it and replanting native vegetation. Water from the pits will be pumped to a treatment plant and sludge hauled off.
“We are pleased with the decision,” Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames said Tuesday.
The next step will be to determine how much each of the responsible parties will pay.
“It means they are on the books for the damage that has occurred to our community, and they can’t just walk away as if they weren’t a player,” said Spokane tribal member Deb Abrahamson, coordinator of the Shawl Society, a tribal environmental and community advocacy group.
“For our people it means at least there is some hope for justice for all the lives it’s taken, the culture it has diluted and the soil and waterways that are poisoned,” she said.