Uranium mine still poses risks

Company ordered to continue treating water at Superfund site

Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week ordered a mine company to keep treating water at a radioactive defunct open-pit uranium mine that's now a Superfund site of national priority.

The Midnite Mine is on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington. About 350 acres were mined 100 miles north of Hanford, a former plutonium plant that is the world's largest environmental cleanup project.

The much less well-known Midnite site has the EPA status "Human Exposure Not Under Control."

The water, soil and waste rock are contaminated with radium-226, uranium-238 and lead-210. The air carries particulate matter and radon gas, a carcinogen. Plants are taking up the contaminants. Deer and elk are attracted to the salts and the water in the mining pits.

The area is used for recreation, subsistence and traditional tribal activities, according to the EPA.

Newmont USA Limited and its subsidiary, Dawn Mining Co. LLC, own the mine. Dawn has few assets, and Denver-based Newmont is a major miner with projects on five continents.

The mine started with brothers Jim and John LeBret's discovery of uranium on the Spokane Reservation in the 1950s. Their Midnite Mines Inc. joined with Newmont to make Dawn Mining Co.

Dawn mined the site from 1954 until 1981, first selling uranium to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and then to the energy industry. Yellowcake production stopped in 1981, when uranium prices dropped.

The majority of workers were from the Spokane tribe and other area tribes, according to the SHAWL Society, an indigenous organization that works on environmental contamination of the Spokane lands.

Radioactive waste rock reportedly was used to build the roads and grade the site.

The SHAWL Society notes on its Web site that baseline health studies have never been done, but says anecdotal evidence points to high incidence of kidney failure, cancer and other health problems.

"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," wrote Deb Abrahamson of SHAWL in a 2007 newsletter.

Water treatment started in 1992. The resulting sludge contained uranium and had low-level radioactivity; the companies disposed of it at the Ford, Wash., mill where they once processed ore, at less than $100 a ton.

But the Ford mill will close by the end of the year under Washington state authority, and EPA says the companies must keep taking care of the sludge.

The sludge must be taken to a licensed facility until the treatment system can be modified to remove uranium separately. An EPA study estimated the cost of dumping the sludge at $4,000 a ton.

EPA is ordering the companies to continue treating water at the site, because shutting it down would contaminate a creek that runs into the Spokane River.

The agency issued a record of decision in 2006 on a cleanup plan. EPA called for moving and covering more than 33 million tons of waste rock to prevent acid drainage of the uranium and other metals. The plan also requires restricting access to the site and long-term monitoring.

Superfund law says those who are responsible for the pollution can be made to pay for its cleanup.

Dawn, the mine's operating company, has few assets. Newmont argued it wasn't responsible because - although it owned 51 percent of Dawn - it didn't manage the day-to-day mine operations, the Seattle Times reported in January this year.

A Spokane federal district court this summer found Newmont and Dawn liable for $15 million in EPA investigative costs and for future cleanup at the site, which is estimated at $152 million.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or e-mail kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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