WELLPINIT, Wash. – Members of the Spokane Tribe gathered near the Midnite Mine on Sunday to offer prayers and songs for the healing of the defunct uranium mine.
As the sound of drums and the smell of sweetgrass filled the meadow, they also remembered friends and relatives who worked at the mine, especially those who later died of cancer.
“So many of our people worked at the mines. They did so for survival, to take care of their families and their children. I don’t think they knew what uranium does to us and our land,” said Carol Evans, vice chair of the Spokane Tribe’s governing council.
Newmont Mining Co., the Midnite Mine’s former operator, is scheduled to begin cleanup operations at the mine in 2015. But those who attended Sunday’s gathering, which was organized by the SHAWL Society, an environmental activist group on the reservation, said they needed more time to study and understand the cleanup plan for the 350-acre Superfund site above the Spokane River.
“There’s a lot of pressure about the timeline, about money and jobs. But we have to do the right thing,” said Melodi Wynne, a tribal member.
The health of future generations depends on the success of the cleanup, others at the gathering said.
Located about 45 miles northwest of Spokane, the Midnite Mine opened in the 1950s to produce uranium for the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race. It closed in 1981 after a drop in uranium prices.
The mine and its mill in Ford, Wash., brought hundreds of good-paying jobs to the reservation. Some tribal members think it also brought elevated cancer rates from radiation exposure. Many of the workers labored without proper safety equipment. They brought radioactive dust home on their clothes.
Signs near the Midnite Mine still warn people not to drink from the streams or eat fish, plants or animals taken from the area.
“There are a lot of people who don’t understand the seriousness of what we’ve got going on,” said Gig LeBret, a former uranium worker.
Cleaning up the Midnite Mine will cost about $193 million and take about a decade, according to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Newmont and its subsidiary, Dawn Mining, will pay for most of the work under a 2012 agreement with the federal government. The U.S. Department of Interior will pay $42 million of cleanup costs for failing its federal trust responsibilities to the Spokane Tribe through proper oversight of the mine during its operation.
Bill Lyle, Newmont’s project coordinator, said the EPA is reviewing a second draft of the cleanup plan submitted by the company. The work is on track to begin next year, he said.
About 26 million tons of radioactive waste rock and low-grade uranium ore remain at the Midnite Mine. The plan calls for putting the radioactive rock into the open-pit mine’s old excavations.
The rock piles will be contoured to reduce the amount of water that percolates through the waste rock. In addition, groundwater from the Midnite Mine’s pits will be collected and shipped to a treatment facility, then piped 7 miles for release into the Spokane River.
The water discharged into the Spokane River must meet the tribe’s standards for radionuclides, heavy metals and other pollutants, which are stricter than state and federal standards, according to Newmont’s consultant.
The pits will be capped with a 3-foot-thick layer of clean soil and replanted. The cap will reduce human exposure to radon gas and gamma rays – two of the contaminants of concern at the site. Monitoring for both radon and radiation will continue at the Midnite Mine site after the cleanup is complete, Newmont’s Lyle said.
Newmont bought an 81-acre timbered parcel near the Midnite Mine to provide the clean dirt to cap the rock piles.
The company plans to mine about 700,000 cubic yards of soil from the site but will leave enough to later replant the 81 acres, according to the company’s design plan. The tribal council has approved the design plan and road access to the site, Newmont’s Lyle said.
But the plan has been controversial on the Spokane Reservation, where some would prefer to see the clean dirt come from outside the reservation.
Mining the topsoil will create a new scar to address an old wound, said Deb Abrahamson, executive director of the SHAWL Society.
“They should do no more damage to our land,” she said. “We feel this undermines tribal sovereignty. It sets the precedent for corporations to obtain tribal land, and this one (Newmont) has been so destructive.”
She’s collecting signatures for a referendum with hopes of overturning the tribal council’s approval during an election in June.
Evans, the tribal council’s vice chair, said she heard the message from the gathering that tribal members need more time to learn about the cleanup plan and give input. She also said the council’s approval of the design plan isn’t final. “It’s still a draft,” she said.