Brothers Jim LeBret and John LeBret were prospecting on the Spokane Reservation with a Geiger counter in 1954 and discovered rocks with a fluorescent green glow.
The brothers, members of the Spokane Tribe, staked the first uranium claim on the reservation. By the end of that year, the Midnite Mine shipped its first load of uranium ore to a Salt Lake City processing plant.
The mine, about 45 miles northwest of Spokane, produced uranium needed for the nation’s nuclear arsenal from 1955 to 1981.
The 350-acre area is now a Superfund cleanup site that features a series of open pits filled with mildly radioactive heavy metals and water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified a cleanup plan for the site in 2006 that involves dumping contaminated soil into open pits, then covering the pits.
Contaminated water from the Midnite Mine will be treated at a new water treatment plant before it will be permitted to be discharged into Blue Creek, which flows into the Spokane Arm of Lake Roosevelt, the EPA said. The federal government has reached an agreement with one of the world’s largest mining companies on a $193 million cleanup of a defunct uranium mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
The LeBret brothers and their partners contracted with Dawn Mining, a subsidiary of Newmont Mining Co., to operate the mine. Newmont and Dawn will pay for the majority of the restoration costs at the mine.
The U.S. Department of the Interior will contribute $42 million to future cleanup activities for failing to fulfill federal trust responsibilities to the Spokane Tribe through proper oversight of the open-pit mine.
Most recently, members of the Spokane Tribe who worked at the mine or who live on the reservation are questioning the high rates of cancer on the reservation.