Polluting Uranium Mine on Spokane Tribal Land to Be Cleaned

SPOKANE, Washington, October 1, 2011 (ENS) – A multi-million dollar settlement agreement has been reached for the cleanup of the Midnite Mine Superfund Site, located on the Spokane Indian Reservation in northeastern Washington, the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday.

Elevated levels of radioactivity and heavy metals at the 350 acre site, which is centered around a former open pit uranium mine, pose a threat to people’s health and the environment, the agencies said.

The U.S. EPA has documented cadmium, chromium, nickel, zinc, radium 226, uranium 234, uranium 238, polonium 210, copper, lead and lead 210 throughout the site in groundwater, surface water, and sediment. Local residents face the risk of contamination through residential land use, ground water ingestion, and subsistence farming.

In 1954, Jim and John LeBret, members of the Spokane Tribe, found uranium on the reservation. The LeBret brothers and several other tribal members formed Midnite Mines, Inc. and secured mining leases administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Midnite Mines then joined with Newmont USA Limited, a U.S. mining conglomerate, to create Dawn Mining Company with Newmont as the 51 percent shareholder and Midnite Mines, Inc. owning 49 percent.

The Midnite uranium mine on the Spokane reservation (Photo by Peace Development Fund)

The Midnite Mine operated from 1954 to 1964, and again from 1969 to 1981. As a result of the mining operations, 350 acres of land were disturbed, and numerous waste rock piles and two open mine pits are still present at the site.

Under the settlement agreement filed Friday, Newmont and Dawn Mining will design, construct and implement the cleanup plan for the site that EPA selected in 2006.

Cleanup at the site is expected to cost $193 million. EPA also will be reimbursed for approximately $25 million in costs already incurred.

The United States, on behalf of the Department of the Interior, will contribute $54 million toward past and future cleanup activities.

Finally, the mining companies have agreed to secure funding that will be available should EPA have to take over the work.

The consent decree was filed Friday with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington in Spokane. The public now has 30 days to comment on the agreement.

“Under today’s agreement, the mining companies will perform the cleanup of the Midnite Mine. The cleanup will bring important environmental protections to residents of the Spokane Indian Reservation, including the control of radioactive mine waste and the protection of nearby waters from acid mine drainage,” said Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice.

“This settlement means that the long-sought cleanup will be implemented, and gives the Spokane Tribe a role in working with EPA to ensure that the cleanup protects human health and the environment on the reservation,” said Moreno.

“EPA is committed to ensuring the cleanup of environmental contamination at former mine sites,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

“Today’s settlement will ensure that sufficient funds are available to complete the cleanup of the Midnite Mine site, strengthening environmental protection in Indian Country and protecting the families living on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” she said.

Dennis McLerran, EPA regional administrator in Seattle, says the agreement means the long-overdue cleanup work can move forward.

“Today’s settlement is great news for the environment and finally gives the Spokane Tribe some certainty,” said McLerran. “The tribe has been living with this legacy for too long. EPA is eager to get moving on the cleanup and make the area safe for the families who live and work in the area.”

At the site, a drainage layer and sumps in the two pits left open after mining will be installed, existing waste rock in the pits will be consolidated, and the pits will be covered to keep surface water out. Ongoing maintenance will include removal and treatment of water that enters from the pit walls.

Officials expect the project’s design phase to last three years, with an additional five to seven years needed to finish construction. Managing contaminated water at the site will continue to be a high priority during construction planning.

EPA will oversee the work to ensure that it follows the cleanup plan and complies with the agreement signed by the parties. The Spokane Tribe, though not a party to the agreement, will support EPA in overseeing the work.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.