Members of the Spokane Tribe of Indians shouldn’t hunt, fish or gather medicinal plants near a defunct uranium mine on their reservation, according to a recent public health assessment.
Radioactive materials and heavy metals from the 350-acre Midnite Mine are leaching into Blue Creek, a tributary of the Spokane River.
People who visit the area for cultural and subsistence activities are at risk from long-term exposure to contaminants, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said in a recent report, which warned against eating fish from Blue Creek or using creek water in sweat lodge ceremonies.
The report also cautioned people not to eat deer, elk or moose that forage in the Blue Creek drainage until future studies determine whether the meat is safe. Though visiting the mine site doesn’t appear to be a health risk, the report also recommended that visitors limit their stay to one hour per day or less to reduce radiation exposure.
Dawn Mining Co. operated the Midnite Mine between 1954 and 1981. The mine, about 45 miles west of Spokane, is now a federal Superfund site.
In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency published a plan for cleaning up 33 million tons of waste rock and ore at the Midnite Mine. Past court rulings said the cleanup costs should be paid for by the federal government, Dawn Mining and Newmont Mining Corp., the majority owner of Dawn Mining. The matter is still in litigation.
Frederick Kirschner, a consultant to the Spokane Tribe, said the health assessment didn’t contain any big surprises.
“We’ve known that it’s been a problem for a long time,” he said of the Midnite Mine. “People have taught their kids to stay away.”
Upcoming community workshops will reiterate that message. The tribe plans to post advisory signs in the Blue Creek drainage, alerting people to the risk from radiation and metals, he said.
Given the warnings in the health assessment, Kirschner also said the tribe will re-evaluate holding kids’ culture camps near Blue Creek’s confluence with the Spokane River.
Deb Abrahamson’s family used to gather chokecherries from the Blue Creek drainage, but stopped years ago because of concerns about the mine. But not everyone knows that a uranium mine is tucked into the hills, said Abrahamson, the coordinator for the SHAWL Society, an environmental group on the reservation.
Since the Midnite Mine has been closed for nearly 30 years, there’s a new generation less familiar with the history of uranium mining on the reservation, she said.
Abrahamson said she’s pleased to see an 8-foot fence going up around the mine site, replacing a former barbed-wire fence that allowed people and animals to access the Midnite Mine. As part of the Superfund work, SHAWL is also advocating for more health studies.