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Midnite Mine: Community Needs versus Cleanup Plan

Contamination from the Midnite Uranium Mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington remains a major focus of community concern more than 20 years after the mining ceased. The mine and neighboring areas affected by contaminants released to air, soil and water from the mine include places of significant cultural value to the Spokane community, as well as areas currently used to hunt, fish, gather herbs and conduct youth camp and traditional activities such as sweat lodge ceremonies. Now, the conversation has moved to a Proposed Cleanup Plan that needs to include permanent collection and treatment systems for 10-13 million gallons a year of polluted ground water.

The Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water, and Land (SHAWL) Society has been instrumental in raising awareness in the Spokane Indian community about the mine, its impacts and its ownership for many years. SHAWL Society, coordinated by Deb and Twa-le Abrahamson, is an indigenous organization based in Wellpinit, Washington, the main community of the Spokane Indian Nation, that works on issues of environmental contamination including uranium mining impacts on Spokane lands and people. SHAWL Society’s mission is to keep toxic waste from ruining the environment; to protect the air, water, and land for the children; and to promote awareness and educate the community about environmental concerns and social injustices. In addition to advocating for effective cleanup by the mining owners, SHAWL Society has developed a uranium mine impact-related library and curriculum for use in community schools, and participates in national and international indigenous network campaigns.

The Proposed Cleanup Plan provides a comprehensive strategy for pollution due to both past and future releases from the mine. It was developed by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region X as a result of the designation of the mine as a Superfund site. The Proposed Cleanup Plan was distributed in September 2005, 24 years after the mine ceased operating.

SHAWL Society requested that Southwest Research and Information Center’s Paul Robinson join a technical review team in a training session in November 2005 for members of the Spokane Indian Reservation. This was an effort to insure that an effective set of comments and recommendations on the Proposed Cleanup Plan would be provided to EPA. The goals of the training session were to assist the Spokane Indian community and other concerned citizens understand and respond to the Proposed Cleanup Plan during the formal public comment period. The technical review team was convened by Technical Outreach Services for Native American Community (TOSNAC), and coordinated by Brenda Brandon who is associated with Haskell Indian College and Kansas State University.

The Midnite Mine operated from 1955–1981 under the ownership of a subsidiary of Newmont Mining Company: Dawn Mining Company. Today the mine looks like an open wound in the heart of the Spokane Indian Reservation. Dawn abandoned the pits and 33 million tons of waste rock they created without conducting reclamation work to either rehabilitate the site or prevent release of pollutants. As a result, radionuclides, heavy metals and other pollutants have spread several miles beyond the mine site, leaving a toxic trail in downstream creeks and valleys and in downwind plants and hillsides in the central part of the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Radionuclides of concern at the Midnite mine and in downstream watersheds include Uranium-238 decay series isotopes such as Uranium-238, Radium-226, Thorium-230 and Radon-222. Heavy metal contaminants of concern include: Aluminum, Arsenic, Barium, Beryllium, Cadmium, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper, Lead, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Selenium, Silver, Thallium, Uranium, Vanadium, and Zinc. The waste rock piles and the ore not mined from the open pits at the Midnite mine have significant sulfide content leading to acid generating conditions that release heavy metals and other pollutants into surface and ground water.

Midnite Mine uranium pit filled with hevy metal-contaminated water.

Spokeman tribal members attend the Training Session.

Contamination from these pollutants is very severe and has spread beyond the mine site into all the creeks draining off the mine site. These creeks flow into Lake Franklin D. Roosevelt on the Columbia River.

In surface water, average uranium-238 concentrations in drainages outside the mine site itself are 4,000 times background. Elevated concentrations of uranium and decay products as well as cadmium, zinc, and sulfates indicative of acid drainage, were observed in all downgradient drainages.

In groundwater in streambeds downstream of the mine, uranium concentrations are 200 – 500 times background levels. Manganese is 85 times background in alluvium and unconsolidated material.

In soil, Radium-226 concentrations in the mine area are 40 times background levels; Ra-226 concentrations outside the mine site are 15 times background level. The background level of Ra-226 in the mine area present a 1:10000 risk of cancer, the criteria used a cleanup standard by EPA for radium contaminated sites.

In plants, background concentrations of radionuclides are 30–50 times higher in the mine area; it is 5–10 times higher than background in aquatic and riparian area plants downstream of the mine.

The Spokane Midnite Uranium Mine Cleanup Plan Training Session convened on November 17, 2005 as a day-long forum of presentations and dialogue among Spokane community members and other interested people regarding human health and ecologic risk, impacts on traditional activities near the mine, groundwater contamination, and the proposed cleanup plans. Discussions among the training team and Spokane members helped insure that comments to EPA addressed the specific personal concerns of community members. Namely the concerns of those that have hunted, fished and conducted ceremonies in the areas affected by the Midnite Mine for centuries, and who hope to continue those cultural activities safely for centuries to come.

While everyone concerned about the Midnite Mine situation is interested in an effective cleanup plan, the Spokane community has set very high goals for that cleanup, goals that are not likely to be attained unless the EPA’s Proposed Cleanup Plan is upgraded. The specific cleanup goals established by the Spokane Indian Nation include:

  • Cleanup of groundwater and surface water due to the critical role all reservation waters play in the Tribe’s subsistence, religious and cultural practices;
  • Cleanup any residual risks to tribal members and any impacts on tribal resources;
  • Provide long-term water treatment, including the physical, financial and other burdens it could impose on the Tribe and the risk of failure due to unmet funding or technical needs;
  • Reduce or eliminate restrictions on Tribal uses that impact the Tribe’s long-term use of its reservation property and resources, and the needs of the reservation environment;
  • Insure that the need for long-term operations and maintenance does not impose a financial or environmental burden on the Tribe; and
  • Compensate the Tribe for the effective loss of portions of its reservation land base and other resources on which the Tribe will depend in perpetuity.

In an attempt to address these and other concerns, EPA identified five levels of cleanup plans and specific detail options within those categories. EPA’s Proposed Cleanup Plan recommendations included technologies to permanently collect and treat ground water, backfill all pits, divert surface runoff from entering the mine pits and waste rock piles, and conduct extensive soil and steam bed remediation. EPA projects that the Proposed Cleanup Plan will cost in the range of $150 million. For comparison, the 11 million pounds of uranium produced from the Midnite Mine would have been worth $88 million at the $8/pound price paid by the Atomic Energy Commission for uranium at the time the mine opened in 1955.

Critical issues identified during the Training Session that were yet to be addressed in the cleanup plan include:

  • Failure to identify examples of the groundwater collection technologies that EPA proposes to install under and around the mine pits prior to their being backfilled to gather a projected 10–13 million gallons;
  • Failure to identify a permanent site for the 40–80 tons per year of wastewater treatment sludge projected to be produced on a permanent basis at the waste water treatment plant;
  • Failure to identify enough “non-reactive rock” to mix with and reduce the acid generating potential of the high sulfate (acid generating) waste rock and pit wall rock; and
  • Failure to either analyze or incorporate eight technical modifications proposed by the Spokane Tribe including: grouting fractures in pit walls that contribute to acid drainage, adding reactive reagents to pits to precipitate and stabilize metals, using rock with excess net neutralizing potential in drainage blankets, using “passive drain bulkheads” in drainage blankets, using excavated pits as site for fully engineered on-site sludge disposal basin, and placing soil over excavated areas to promote effective revegetation.

The failure to analyze the technologies recommended by the Spokane Tribe are particularly problematic, as acceptance of the Proposed Cleanup Plan by the Tribe is one of the criteria for final approval of a remedy for the site problems. The comment period on the Proposed Cleanup Plan ended on January 18, 2006 and an announcement of a final proposed remedy in a Record of Decision is expected sometime in 2006.

For Additional Information:

Deb and Twa-le Abrahamson
SHAWL Society

Ellie Hale, EPA Project Manager
U.S. EPA Region 10
1200 Sixth Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101-1128

Brenda Brandon
(866) 880-2296

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—Katherine Montague, Editor
The Workbook
Volume 1, No. 14, April 1978

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