Progress made toward cleaning up uranium mine

By Nicholas K. Geranios

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Nov. 6 2011 4:51 p.m. MST

In this 1997 photo, the open pit uranium mine can be seen on the Spokane Indian Reservation near Wellpinit, Wash. The Spokane Tribe of Indians has won one battle in its long fight against uranium pollution, after a deal was reached this fall between the federal government and mining companies to clean up the long-closed Midnite Mine on their reservation. But the mine cleanup will not provide relief to many tribal members who contend their health was damaged from years of working at the mine.

The Spokesman-Review) COEUR D'ALENE PRESS OUT, Associated Press

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SPOKANE, Wash. — The Spokane Tribe of Indians has recently won big victories in its long fight against uranium contamination, including a deal reached this fall between the federal government and mining companies to clean up the long-closed Midnite Mine on the reservation.

In addition, tribal members in September became eligible to receive federal compensation if they became sick while working at the mine.

"It is good news the mining company was finally forced to take responsibility for the mess they've left in poisoning our land and people," said tribal member Deb Abrahamson, founder of the SHAWL Society, which for a decade advocated to clean the mine site and compensate workers who developed cancer and other illnesses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a settlement with Newmont USA Limited and its subsidiary, Dawn Mining Co., to spend $193 million to clean up the 350-acre Superfund site where the uranium mine operated.

While Newmont will pay most of the costs, the U.S. Department of the Interior will contribute $42 million for failing to fulfill federal trust responsibilities to the Spokane Tribe through proper oversight of the open-pit mine.

In a statement, Newmont said it is "committed to ensuring a responsible cleanup that is protective of human health and the environment," and that "the remedy in the consent decree will create employment opportunities within the local community," including the Spokane Tribe of Indians.

"We're happy to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Jamie SiJohn, a spokeswoman for the tribe, whose reservation is just northwest of Spokane.

The Midnite Mine operated from 1954 to 1981, providing a key ingredient for nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War. Up to 500 people worked at a time at the mine, blasting nearly 3 million tons of uranium ore out of the hillsides.

Among the cleanup actions over the next decade will be draining water from two open pits, which are up to 500 feet deep. Also, 33 million tons of radioactive waste rock scattered around the mine site will be moved into the pits, which will then be covered to keep surface water out. Ongoing maintenance will include removal of water that enters the pits.

"The cleanup will bring important environmental protections to residents of the Spokane Indian Reservation, including the control of radioactive mine waste," said Ignacia S. Moreno, an assistant attorney general with the U.S. Department of Justice, in a press release.

Meanwhile, a recently completed epidemiology study of the 2,700-member tribe conducted by the state Department of Health and the Northwest Indian Health Board concluded there were high rates of cancer among tribal members who worked at the mine. That qualified them for federal compensation of between $50,000 and $100,000 per person, Abrahamson said.

It's not clear how many tribal members will ultimately get compensation, as many miners have died and some are declining to file for payments, she said.

The SHAWL Society's task now is to set up a clinic to help people become eligible for compensation, she said. They need to be medically screened and then fill out applications, she said.

The complicated process has been a barrier to compensation for members of some tribes, and Abrahamson is trying to set up a team of attorneys to help Spokanes get qualified.

"That's how the Navajos met success, they had attorneys," she said.

The majority of the workers at the mine were Spokanes or members of other nearby tribes, Abrahamson said.

Women of the tribe have contracted cancer from cleaning the clothes of the men who worked in the mines, Abrahamson said.

Many members of Abrahamson's own family became sick.

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