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Spokane Lands
Shawl Society's Deb Abrahamson Speaks Out About Uranium Mining on Tribal Lands in Washington State

"Many of the women who contracted cancer were the mothers, the aunties, and the sisters. They cleaned the clothes for their sons, brothers, and husbands who went to work in the mines. A lot of the time people were doing double shifts at the mine sites, so people would come home after 16 hours of work and literally take their coats off and fall asleep, not change their clothing or anything."
Deb Abrahamson

Deb Abrahamson, SHAWL Society
(Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land)

I’m Deb Abrahamson and I’m from the Spokane reservation. I am here to talk about uranium mining in Washington State. We had two uranium mines on our reservation during the Cold War Era. Our reservation is located about 45 miles outside of Spokane in eastern Washington. It consists of 154,00 acres, with a membership of 2,464 people. We are surrounded on three boundaries by waterways which mark the boundaries of our reservation. On the west side is the Columbia River, the south side is the Spokane River and on the East Side is a tributary call Tshimkian Creek. Along Tshimkian Creek is a mill site. Uranium mining began just as it has for many other tribes in the early 1950s. The Midnite Mine is currently a superfund site.

We’re moving toward reclamation. When the Midnite Mine was in operation, they broke into the aquifer on part of our reservation. The aquifer is seeping up to the surface – perpetual water flow exists. Unfortunately, with perpetual water flow, surface water becomes contaminated. This goes into a small creek called Blue Creek, and on into the Spokane River. The Ford Mill site sits adjacent to the reservation and is not federally regulated. This has created some unique regulatory issues for our people. The oversight agency for the mill site is the Washington State Department of Health Radiation Division. For the most part, the tribe and its people have had little input into how the cleanup and the closure of the mill site have occurred.

Midnite Mine operated from 1953-1982. The sludge material from the mine was transported through our reservation – an approximately 26-mile drive through the heart of our reservation – down to the mill site. This resulted in 40 hot spots along our main highway. The main highway goes through our small townships, directly in front of our school system. The exposure scenario for our people has been continuous as the sludge material is still being transported from the Midnite Mine site down to Ford. There was no signage on the trucks that hauled the sludge material, until we noted that to our tribal counsel. Last year (2005) they forced the trucking company to put labels on the trucks. People weren’t aware that the sludge material was coming through two truckloads a day. Also at the Ford Mill site are the tailings Ponds, three unlined and one lined. But there was about 35 years of unregulated tailings that exist at the Ford Mill site. That, in turn, was leaking into the water system at the boundary of the reservation.

The majority of the workers for both the mill and mine sites have been from our tribe and other area tribes. We’ve never had a baseline health study conducted. Given that we’re such a small tribe, the number of people that we’ve lost in the last several decades have been significant. Many of the women who contracted cancer were the mothers, the aunties, and the sisters. They cleaned the clothes for their sons, brothers, and husbands who went to work in the mines. A lot of the time people were doing double shifts at the mine sites, so people would come home after 16 hours of work and literally take their coats off and fall asleep, not change their clothing or anything. One of the stories that has been told to us by one of our tribal members is that she was helping her mother spring clean, and they were turning over the mattress in their parents’ room. As they turned it over and shook it, out yellowcake came out, all this yellow dust. He (the father) worked at the mill site. It was not uncommon for people to go home and literally fall asleep on the couch with their work clothes on. Nobody was ever told to just take your shoes off and separate your laundry from the rest of the family. People were never told the many dangers of working on the mine.

The primary player we’re dealing with is Newmont Mining Corporation. They operate in Peru, Indonesia, around the globe. Our concern is that as a small tribe we have one attorney that is able to work on mining issues. A corporation like Newmont has hundreds of attorneys and resources. Trying to work at developing effective strategies to have Newmont pay for the reclamation is very limited as far as the tribe is concerned. At this point, Newmont has stated that they will not be financially liable. EPA filed a lawsuit against Newmont, so we are waiting to see the outcome.

Another concern for our people is the open pits – there is no adequate fencing. In many spots the fencing is down, so it allows the wildlife free reign in and out of those tailings ponds to drink that water. We harvest moose, elk and deer. People haven’t stopped eating, and will continue to eat our subsistence food. The women will continue to tend the hides. How much exposure is really happening as we harvest the food that we’re provided? This is the food that our ancestors have provided. There have been growths on deer. People say, just cut it away and keep the rest of the meat. Studies have not been in place to determine how much impact to the wildlife has occurred.

The exposure pathways from the contamination show how contaminates goes into the water, and into our tradition practices, particularly our sweat lodges. Our tribe decided to have a youth cultural revitalization camp. They choose the bottom of Blue Creek, where drainage seeps from the Midnite Mine into the Spokane River. There is a very flat ground area. We tried to talk them out of it, but they went ahead and held the youth camp. They built sweat lodges. We spoke our concern with them: If the sweat lodges are built on contaminated soil, using contaminated rocks, using contaminated water, how much intake and exposure could happen to our young people. That was a very sad time, because without knowledge, we re-exposed our people over and over.

When we looked at our reservation, everyone knows everybody. It’s very small by comparison to other tribes. We’ve had difficulty accessing Indian health data statistics to really look at the health issues. One health professional estimated that the lupus rate on our reservation is 700% higher than the national average. We have lupus clusters among our families, where mothers, daughters, brothers or an uncle all have lupus. Lupus is high, renal failure and the level of stillbirths is high. And our women felt that they were part of the reason the still births occurred. They carried this shame with them rather that talk about it, because there was no avenue to talk about it, no understanding of how heavy metals could impact child bearing. Women have started to talk about it, recognizing that they were not alone. This made it easier for the healing to happen. This is one of the good results of uranium education in the community.

We are part of an accountability board for our tribe to foster transparent self-government. One of the issues that we have dealt with on our reservation is that before mining first began, non-Indians were adopted into our tribe in the ‘30s and ‘40s. They got mining permits on our reservation, and even became council people on our reservation. These people who have been adopted into the tribe continue to maintain the gatekeeper decision-making pieces within the tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Getting involved with transparent self-governance has been critical to move this issue forward for our community.

SHAWL Society is an indigenous organization working on issues of environmental contamination such as uranium mining in Spokane lands. SHAWL Society works 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. email: shawlsociety@yahoo.com

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"We’re here to talk about what we can do to save the world from nuclear proliferation. Our world, we’ve come to find out, is very small. It’s not as big as we once thought. It is an almost impossible task to save the world from nuclear proliferation, but in my way of life, the Diné way of life, we believe that there are no impossibilities. Although it seems like there are only a handful of us here trying to make a stand against nuclear proliferation, the task is not impossible. It all starts when we come together from all corners of the world, like we are doing here this week. We can start by coming to the realization that we are all on the same side. We are all members of the five-fingered intelligent earth dwellers called homosapiens, human beings. It doesn’t matter the color, the creed. We’re all earth dwellers here, in this world."
—The Honorable Joe Shirley, Jr.
President of the Navajo Nation
Address to the Indigenous World Uranium Summit, November 30, 2006

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