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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Deb Abrahamson blames mining pollution for her cancer, keeps fighting toxic legacy on Spokane reservation

Deb Abrahamson, a longtime activist on the Spokane Indian Reservation who attributes her terminal cancer to the reservation’s legacy of uranium mining and processing, poses for a photo at her home in Spokane on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Even when Deb Abrahamson talks about herself – about being diagnosed with a cancerous, newborn-sized tumor in her uterus, about the misdiagnoses leading up to that, about the new tumor that now stretches from “hip bone to hip bone,” about how there’s no cure – she’s thinking about her community.

“But the thing is,” she said on a recent afternoon, “a lot of people on the reservation, they’ve experienced the same thing.”

That common experience, Abrahamson said, is as brutal as it is undeserved and as alarming as it is unjust.

It’s the experience of living near or working in the uranium mining and processing industry on and around the Spokane Indian Reservation and coming down with deadly and disabling illnesses.

The Midnite Mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation is pictured in 2011. (Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)
The Midnite Mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation is pictured in 2011. (Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

While there is no definitive study of the health impacts of those mining and processing operations, questions and suspicions about those impacts have long swirled. And the limited assessments done on the reservation, as well as those examining links between the uranium industry and Native American populations more generally, suggest peoples’ health may well have been compromised.

As the founder and longtime director of the SHAWL Society – the acronym stands for Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water, Land – Abrahamson has worked on a variety of fronts to bring environmental justice to the Spokane reservation as it has dealt with the aftermath of decades of uranium mining at the Midnite and Sherman mines on the reservation, and of uranium processing at the Dawn Mining Co. mill site in Ford.

Perhaps her central fight with SHAWL has been working to make the cleanup process more responsive to the needs of her tribe and pushing her community to engage in that process. She has fought many campaigns in that war, including resisting the relocation of some 700,000 cubic yards of dirt from elsewhere on the reservation to cap mine waste, helping the tribe access funds from the federal government for former uranium workers suffering from occupational illnesses, and successfully working to stop a relaxation of cleanup standards at the Midnite Mine site earlier this year.

Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council and Abrahamson’s first cousin, said Abrahamson is “someone I’ve looked up to my whole life and admired.

“Because of her efforts and all of SHAWL’s efforts, it pushed us to be a better clan,” Evans said.

And now, after 25 years of fighting, the 64-year-old Abrahamson said she hopes to narrow her focus to a single issue, which she now views as her most urgent concern.

“With the cancer, my message at this point is that I would really hope to see community intervention on health,” she said. “That is what I’d hope to see. And that’s why I’ve been going to meetings, I’ve been doing work around town, staying involved.”

Abrahamson said she’s also eager for members of her community to begin asking questions themselves.

“To look at how many losses they’ve experienced in their family systems and identify the illnesses associated with those losses, because the impacts of the mine are ongoing,” Abrahamson said. “It’s not going to stop this generation. It continues. And now that we have another workforce in play (cleaning up the sites), the toxins are still being spread into the trading post and the post office and the tribal offices and the homes.

“And people need to take the precautions necessary to protect themselves, as well as the lands and the waters, and do what our ancestors taught us. We’re obligated to the lands that we live on. And we’re obligated to this earth to make things better for future generations. That’s the main message.

“And don’t give up, because we’ve had 500 years of oppression and genocide and diseases thrown at us, and hangings and children taken away and forced sterilization to our people. All these conditions. We are still here. And we have a right to a quality of life equal to our neighbors. That’s the message.”

Blue Creek runs between the Midnite and Sherwood Uranium Mines on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Currently water treated to remove radioactive waste and heavy metals are pumped into Blue Creek. Even after treatment the water is still polluted enough to kill aquatic insects. Blue Creek flows into the Spokane arm of Lake Roosevelt. (Jed Conklin / For The Spokesman-Review)
Blue Creek runs between the Midnite and Sherwood Uranium Mines on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Currently water treated to remove radioactive waste and heavy metals are pumped into Blue Creek. Even after treatment the water is still polluted enough to kill aquatic insects. Blue Creek flows into the Spokane arm of Lake Roosevelt. (Jed Conklin / For The Spokesman-Review)

‘A never-ending education’

The Dawn Mining Co. – a subsidiary of the multinational mining company Newmont Goldcorp Corp. – shuttered the Midnite Mine in the early 1980s, after extracting nearly 3 million tons of uranium ore over about a 27-year period.

A year after the mine closed, the company also shuttered what’s known as the Dawn mill site in Ford, where about 58 million cubic feet of ore was processed and 13 million pounds of “yellowcake” – a concentrated form of uranium that can be enriched and used in nuclear reactors and weapons – was produced.

While they were operating, environmental controls at the sites were apparently limited.

“From the opening of the (Midnite) mine in 1954 until 1978, the Midnite Mine had no controls on releases to surface water,” the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said in a 2010 report.

And the process of cleaning up the facilities since their closure has been disjointed and highly protracted. Instead of combining the mill and mine into a single site, they have been handled separately. The state Department of Health’s waste management division, under authority delegated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, oversees the mill site’s cleanup. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees the cleanup of the Midnite Mine through its Superfund program.

Cleanup of the mill site started in 1995, while cleanup of the Midnite site didn’t begin until 2017. Neither cleanup is complete, and the job has presented unexpected challenges. At the mill site, for example, Dawn has identified a pair of groundwater plumes and has asked the Health Department to relax its standards for cleaning them up.

Larded with acronyms, weighed down with highly technical documents and governed by scientists, bureaucrats and company officials mostly located hundreds of miles away, the process of making decisions about how these sites will be cleaned up within the framework of federal statutes is extremely difficult to follow, much less engage with, especially as it drags out over decades.

But Abrahamson has worked tirelessly not only to stay involved but also to bring others from her community into the conversation.

“It’s just like a never-ending education,” said Twa-le Swan, Abrahamson’s daughter and a fellow activist. “Even in the chemo chair, she’s talking to the nurses, to the people in the chair next to her, and talking to them about why we have the cancer rates we do.”

Abrahamson’s fight has been long and varied. But her ultimate, underlying aim is to ensure that the people who have lived – and died – with the legacy of uranium mining and processing on the Spokane Indian Reservation are not forgotten by those who help decide its future.

“And that’s probably been the biggest effort, just to get our voices at the table, the decision-making tables,” Abrahamson said. “Mainly because we were born into the toxic environment, had no decision-making say throughout, how it impacted our community and our people and our lands and water. And we wanted to have a voice in this effort. And so that has been the biggest part of it, has just been getting to those tables.”

‘We have to work’

That table was in Wellpinit on Nov. 19, and it wasn’t exactly easy for Abrahamson to get to it.

She has been living in Spokane with her daughters’ families since about 2016, when, after four emergency room visits and years of misdiagnoses, a scan discovered a tumor and she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, she said.

On the reservation, Abrahamson said, there aren’t resources to help people with cancer.

“Many people just stay home without any of the resources and pass away,” she said. “Fortunately for me, both of my daughters live in Spokane and I’m able to come in here and receive the services and locate resources.”

But she hasn’t let her diagnosis, the fatigue that accompanies her sickness or doses of chemotherapy stop her from doing everything she can to push for the kind of change she wants to see, on and off the reservation.

In the past two months, she has traveled to San Francisco to mark the 50th anniversary of the American Indian Movement’s nearly two-year-long occupation of Alcatraz Island, to Seattle to attend a People’s Town Hall on Nuclear Weapons, and to Cataldo, Idaho, to be honored with a Leader of Conscience award from local faith leaders.

In June, Abrahamson was in a dugout canoe near Kettle Falls, helping raise awareness about how rivers and their salmon populations have been drastically altered by dams. This month, she brought Japanese “art activists” researching the pathway of uranium from U.S. mines and processing plants to the bombing of Hiroshima on a tour of the Spokane reservation’s part in that story.

On Nov. 19, Abrahamson trekked to her hometown of Wellpinit for a community meeting about the Midnite Mine.

Accompanied by her daughter, Swan, Abrahamson arrived in a cloche hat with an American Indian Movement patch and several eagle plumes pinned to the side. Joining them were a large contingent of officials from the EPA and the Spokane Tribe, as well as contractors involved in the cleanup and negotiations over the cleanup.

As the meeting ground through four presentations over two hours, Abrahamson’s quiet but strong voice frequently interrupted the proceedings to ask probing and informed questions.

During a presentation about a proposed modification to the cleanup plan that would allow Newmont to forgo removing soil all the way to the bedrock when the bedrock’s contamination level exceeds the threshold for cleaning up soil agreed to previously, Abrahamson wanted to know who would be determining how contaminated the bedrock is.

“Is the information coming from Newmont?” she asked.

The answer was complicated: Yes, Newmont would sample the soil and bedrock and make a recommendation about what to do, but scientists for the Spokane Tribe and the EPA would do their own analysis of the company’s samples.

During another presentation, an EPA health physicist spoke about his audit of the Midnite cleanup, noting his belief that “they’re doing a pretty good job out there” and what he considered the sterling safety record of the U.S. nuclear industry in recent years. Those remarks offended Abrahamson.

“Are you saying the people have not been impacted by the exposure?” she asked, pointing to the cases of former reservation uranium workers who received payments through federal radiation-exposure compensation programs.

As the night continued, Abrahamson’s questions continued. She wanted to know why the EPA website for the Midnite Mine wasn’t more complete, why there wasn’t more community engagement, and why the mill site wasn’t included in the Superfund site in the first place.

When the meeting ended, Abrahamson seemed as disappointed as she did determined.

Her disappointment had to do with the low turnout, the lack of “community involvement” in the tribe-planned meeting and what she characterized as the “lower priority” officials have given to the Midnite site. She blamed much of the problem on the way officials approach the tribe members – talking above them, or down to them, she said.

“The expectation is we start where the staff is, not where the community is,” Abrahamson said. “It’s people who are not from the community who are speaking on behalf of the community. … That’s why we keep pushing, because these things keep surfacing.”

Asked what she would take away from the night, Abrahamson said, “It means we have to work.”

And at her next chemotherapy appointment, she kept working.

“She called Indian Health Service while she was at chemo and asked why they didn’t have a representative there,” Swan said. “We don’t have time to be nice and hope people come. She’s being direct because it’s a pressing issue.”

‘That’s not right’

Abrahamson said she “hated public talking,” had “never testified before” and wasn’t particularly engaged in political issues when she walked into a meeting in 1994 and unwittingly began what would become a 25-year campaign of advocacy.

She was 39 and had plenty on her plate already, including a 6-month-old son, two other children, a history of drug addiction and alcoholism, and a job at a homeless clinic.

But when she saw a notice in the newspaper about an upcoming meeting on the future of the Dawn mill site, her interest was piqued.

She had briefly worked at the Dawn site in the late 1970s, alongside some of her brothers and cousins, doing labor. And her father had worked in the mill when she was a girl.

One of her early memories, in fact, was of playing with what she and her eight siblings referred to as “crazy balls” – misshapen, softball-size rubber and steel balls that “would just ricochet all crooked” when the kids threw them against the side of a barn.

“Later, I learned those were for crushing the ore,” Abrahamson recalled. “They were used for crushing the ore, so they were probably radioactive.”

That relaxed attitude toward the handling of radioactive material at the Dawn mill had apparently persisted into the late ’70s, when Abrahamson was “crazy” using drugs and drinking, needed money and ran into relatives who were working there.

“We were just like migrant workers in a little pickup truck,” Abrahamson recalled. “We’re all loaded in the back, going down, and they said, ‘Yeah, they’ll put you on.’ Sure enough, they put me on.”

Her job, she said, involved working on construction of a “giant” holding tank for waste that “went way down” into the Earth.

“So they had these giant rolls of black material, tarp material,” she said. “And our job was to clean those rolls of lining off.”

While she cleared the lining of debris, a co-worker was responsible for fusing the sheets of lining with a machine, she recalled.

“So the thing about it, just working there, was that we were all still using,” Abrahamson said. “There wasn’t any real supervision. … Basically, everyone was on their own. And they’d go off and sit and smoke pot under a tree. It wasn’t really something that people took seriously at the time.”

Having experienced and witnessed what she considered the “shoddy work,” lack of supervision and absence of safety measures at the site some 15 years before, she decided she’d see what the upcoming mill site meeting in Spokane was all about.

“I went into this hearing,” she said. “I didn’t know it was a formal hearing. I had no clue.”

The meeting was of a group called Dawn Watch, which was fighting a plan to ship even more radioactive waste to the unremediated mill site and bury it there. As advocates of the proposal explained their plan and defended its safety, Abrahamson grew incredulous.

“I heard what they were saying and I go, ‘Nah, that’s not right. That’s B.S. Wait a minute here, who is saying that?’ ” Abrahamson recalled. “So I got up and I shared my experience. I said, ‘We were drinking, smoking pot, there wasn’t any training. There were holes in that lining that they said was going to last forever. And it’s of course compromised. … And it’s still leaking into Tshimakain Creek, which serves as one of the borders for the reservation.’ ”

After that meeting, Abrahamson joined Dawn Watch and the group’s campaign to stop the shipment of radioactive waste to the site. She helped organize protests, reach out to other organizations, seek assistance from other tribes, start a letter-writing campaign and create nuclear-free zones along the proposed waste-shipment route, she said.

That effort was successful: The plan to ship new radioactive waste was ultimately nixed.

But even with the victory, the Spokane Indian Reservation was left with burning questions: What would happen to some 33 million tons of waste rock, unprocessed ore and low-grade ore on 350 acres of land disturbed by open-pit uranium mining 8 miles northwest of Wellpinit? And what would happen to the Dawn mill site, 20 miles to the east?

Answers to those questions have come slowly – and some remain unanswered. Work has been done at both sites, though progress has been uneven.

At the mill site, some ore has been covered, and evaporation ponds have been created to retrieve contaminated groundwater. At the Midnite Mine, millions of cubic yards of rock, soil, ore and proto-ore were dumped this year into pits that will be filled, covered and kept dry with a dewatering system. Along the highway that connects the sites, where ore was transported for so many years, contaminated soils were excavated and disposed of at the mill.

The EPA has targeted the Midnite cleanup for completion in 2025. Officials from both the EPA and the state Health Department said their agencies have worked to involve the tribe in the decision-making process as they have moved forward with their cleanups.

“EPA consulted with the Tribal Council and their technical staff on a regular basis as part of our government to government relationship,” EPA spokesman Mark MacIntyre said in an email. “EPA is required to involve affected communities during defined times during the Superfund process. … EPA firmly believes active, involved communities help build better cleanups.”

Bryony Stasney, a hydrogeologist with the Health Department, noted in an email that her agency “does not currently host regular or periodic community meetings” but has “presented programs to the public about the mill-site cleanup when asked.” Stasney said the department meets “regularly with Spokane Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources to review ongoing decommissioning activities at the mill site.”

Newmont did not respond to requests for comment.

Work interrupted

While Abrahamson has been a steady presence during the long cleanup process, her efforts were interrupted in 2005, when her mother had a stroke and required around-the-clock care.

“So I started taking care of her then,” Abrahamson said. “And it kind of pulled me back from the work for 11, 12 years. … I wasn’t able to follow as much and be involved unless we brought her right to the meeting. And sometimes we did that, but not too often.”

That same need to step back to care for a mother in need is being repeated now.

Swan returned home to Wellpinit after graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in environmental science and restoration ecology and managed the tribe’s air quality program for five years. In that role, she worked to combat indoor radiation and radon.

“We bought our own radon lab, to be the testers,” she said of the tribe during her tenure. “And that led to finding about a third of the homes and buildings on the reservation with higher radon than allowable. So we tried to get some building codes in place.”

She also worked to test wells for uranium.

“And then that opened a whole other can of worms,” she said.

According to Swan, they found “widespread” uranium contamination in water “not just around the mine” but “all across the reservation.”

“And so there was work to do,” Swan said. “But the last few years, we’ve just kind of focused on home. I’ve felt a lot better quitting that job. Even though we were active doing some things there, it was just really like, here’s what’s important.”

Her mother jumped in to clarify what her daughter meant, in case it wasn’t clear: “Twa-le had to leave to care for me after I had surgery.”

“And then she talked me into a baby,” Swan said, laughing, lightening the mood. “Now we’re both caring for a baby. She gave a speech at one of her fundraisers about ‘Oh, I wish I had more grandchildren.’ ”

“Which has been a blessing,” Abrahamson said. “She has been a wonderful blessing. Three grandchildren.”

While Swan has diverted some of her energy and attention to caring for her mother and raising her young daughter, she has also continued Abrahamson’s legacy, taking the reigns of SHAWL and working to keep it moving forward.

‘Make a difference’

Though big questions remain about the precise links between past uranium mining and processing, the cleanup and the current state of the sites, and disease and mortality rates among the Spokane Tribe, the limited investigation that has been done suggests there are connections.

EPA modeling has found, for example, that an individual who lived off the land at the Midnite Mine site – gathering plants, hunting game and drinking surface water from the site as part of a subsistence lifestyle – would have a 1 in 5 probability of getting cancer, based on 70 years of exposure. But that modeling doesn’t consider the current risk, now that the site has been fenced off and the work of cleaning it up is underway.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry completed a site investigation in 2010 that concluded exposure to “site contaminants … is a public health hazard for individuals who use the mining-affected area for traditional and subsistence activities” but was not a health hazard for those who visit the area. The investigation was inconclusive, though, about the effects of other kinds of exposures, including exposure to contaminated groundwater from private wells at the site.

ATSDR’s report also notes that earlier studies “indicate that metals and radionuclides have migrated from on-site source areas … into local groundwater and surface waters as a result of acid mine drainage.”

Abrahamson and others have long suspected that contamination has migrated from the site in this and other ways – via trucks that moved ore from the mine to the uranium-processing mill in Ford, on the boots and clothes of mine and mill workers, through nearby Blue Creek, in wild game that grazed at the site, in radioactive ore used to make driveways – and that it has negatively affected the health of the local population.

Without epidemiological studies that examine disease rates and contamination concentrations among people in the area, it is impossible to know the exact impact of uranium mining and processing on the reservation. But cancer and kidney failure are linked to uranium contamination, and studies indicate members of the Navajo Nation suffered from their exposure to the uranium mining and processing on their lands across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

“As a result of the mining activity much of the population of the Navajo Nation residing near the areas of mining or milling has had their health compromised,” says a 2015 academic review in the journal Geosciences. “The legacy of uranium procurement has left a legacy of long-lived health effects for many Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the United States.”

But as Abrahamson continues to fight for a different legacy in her community – a legacy of engagement, activism, respect and equity – there’s evidence her message is being received, whether it’s delivered at a Superfund meeting, in a tribal gathering or from a chemotherapy chair.

She has been giving classroom presentations and, with Swan, pressing doctors at Washington State University’s Spokane campus to begin responding to health issues on the reservation. Swan said university officials have been receptive to Abrahamson’s calls for a cancer-treatment center for Native Americans, with discussions underway about creating one in Airway Heights, where it would be accessible to members of various tribes.

And after she returned from Alcatraz last month, Abrahamson attended an event to “honor everyone who made that trip and that journey,” Swan said.

“And a lot of the young people, they let her know that her work has inspired them to be more active and to stand up for their own rights,” Swan said. “And that was really powerful to hear, that there is a generation that’s watching her and she’s making them feel like they can make a difference, if they just get up and do something.”