Radioactive Remains | The forgotten story of the Northwest's only uranium mines
Sherman Alexie was a teenager when he first felt threatened by the uranium mines near his home on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
His grandmother had died from esophageal cancer in 1980. A few years later, his mother and some other tribal members took out a road map and began marking red dots on every home where someone had cancer.
The roads where the ore trucks rumbled by were pocked with red.
"I remember at that point knowing at some point in my life I'm certainly going to get sick," recalls Alexie, the acclaimed author who now lives in Seattle and recently won the National Book Award. "I have very little doubt that I'm going to get cancer."
Such is the legacy of the Northwest's only uranium mines. At least for those who even know they exist.
Washington's Hanford nuclear reservation, toxic birthplace of the bomb that set off the atomic age, routinely makes headlines. The Midnite Mine, just 100 miles to the north, is all but forgotten, a combination of denial, neglect and willful amnesia.
One of the world's largest mining companies is trying to wash its hands of responsibility for a costly cleanup. The federal government is supposed to help sick uranium miners, but people on the reservation don't even know the program exists.
Even on the reservation, where everybody once worked at the mines or knows someone who did, its presence is almost invisible: no monuments honoring miners, no displays of old photos showing dirty, tired workers next to mountains of ore.
But for the people who live here, it is a nagging presence, at once feared and longed for.
In a place where more than three-quarters of the people on the reservation are out of work, according to the latest federal statistics, the mines were a ticket out of poverty.
But now a new case of cancer can take people back to the uranium-tainted dust that settled on miners at work and came home in their clothes. People know which houses once sat next to the plant that milled the uranium ore, as if they were haunted.
The mine itself haunts people with a question: Are we being poisoned by what was done to our land?
The story of what happened, and continues to happen, on the reservation is a cautionary tale at a time of renewed interest in nuclear energy and the toxic uranium needed to fuel it.
Concerns about global warming, mixed with the demand for more electricity, have some in the United States taking a second look at nuclear power. The price of uranium has soared, sending prospectors back into the hills. A pound of uranium sold for $7.10 in 2000. Today it's priced at around $90 a pound.
"People are just crazy about uranium right now," says Chuck Gulick, an Eastern Washington state mine inspector who heard people talking about resumed exploration at a recent Spokane meeting of the Northwest Mining Association. "It feels like the late '70s all over again. It's kind of freaky."
AS ALEXIE once wrote, no one winds up on the Spokane Indian Reservation by accident.
Miles from the nearest town, perched on a rolling plateau of rock outcroppings and ponderosa pine forests in the state's northeast corner, only two country roads and a little-used state highway join the 157,376-acre reservation to the outside world.
Before whites arrived with their plows and railroads and rifles, the bands of the Spokane Tribe lived throughout the Spokane River Valley, including what is now the city of Spokane. After smallpox epidemics and several skirmishes with the U.S. Army, in the 1880s part of the tribe agreed to live on a reservation near the confluence of the Spokane and Columbia rivers.
The tribe wound up with some of the least valuable land. Too rocky for farming, it also turned out to have little of the gold and silver early prospectors wanted.
Then, in 1954, brothers Jim and John LeBret, both tribal members, discovered something fascinating on the side of Spokane Mountain, near the center of the reservation: rocks that glowed under a special light. It was uranium.
The government was scouring the country for the radioactive metal, raw material of the nation's growing nuclear arsenal. Much of it lay beneath the red sandstone of the Southwest, also on Indian reservations. But the Spokane Tribe sat on a hot spot.Over the next 27 years, workers dug 38 million tons of rock and radioactive rubble from the ground at the Midnite Mine. Later, workers also dug at the nearby Sherwood Mine, open for just five years.
From the Midnite Mine, they trucked the ore through the center of the reservation to a mill that crushed and bathed it in chemicals to make yellowcake. That form of uranium could be converted into highly radioactive rods destined at first for nuclear-weapons factories like Hanford, and later nuclear-power reactors.
The uranium mines became an economic and social mainstay of the reservation.
"It was a good thing. It brought lots of good jobs," says Pearl McCoy, who worked at the Sherwood Mine along with many of her 13 children. Her husband, Alfred McCoy, a revered tribal leader, worked at the mill.
While McCoy says she would like to see the mine return, she simultaneously wonders if it contributed to her husband's death from emphysema.
THE WORD "URANIUM" might evoke images of mushroom clouds and toxic waste. But on the reservation it was part of everyday life.
Deb Abrahamson, a founder of a small group of tribal activists pushing to clean up the mine, remembers her father, a millworker, bringing home hard rubber balls used to help crush the radioactive ore. They became playthings for her and her siblings.
As a child, Harold Campbell played in the dust beneath huge ore trucks as they were parked near his house. He lived next door to the mill, in a small settlement called Uranium City.
Chico Corral's body still bears the scars of his time at the mine. He fell down a hole there, he says, and broke his neck and four ribs. He wore his dusty work clothes home, where his wife washed them. There was a washing machine at the mine, he says, but it was always broken.
The risks? "Nobody knew. We just worked."
WHEN THE URANIUM market crashed in the 1980s, the mines crashed, too.
But while the mines closed and the jobs vanished, the pollution didn't.
The two mines and the mill were filled with tons of radioactive debris. At the bottom of one of two giant pits at the Midnite Mine, a small lake contains a brew of toxic metals and radiation so poisonous the eerily blue water is virtually sterile.
Roads along the 18-mile route from the Midnite Mine to the mill were littered with spots that set Geiger counters whirring. So did driveways at homes, built from crushed ore hauled from the mine.
Uranium and other toxic metals leached into groundwater, and into the sand and water of several small streams feeding Blue Creek, which runs through the reservation, and eventually into the Spokane River.
Fish in Blue Creek had high levels of heavy metals. The roots of plants growing around the mine had radioactive uranium levels as much as 11 times higher than plants from elsewhere in the area.
The tribe should basically warn people away from fishing, hunting and berry-picking around Blue Creek because of prolonged contamination, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
One scientific model used by the EPA concluded that someone living on food gathered in the Blue Creek drainage and using the water for sweat lodges had a 1-in-5 chance of getting cancer from the added radiation.
Some of the mess is already cleaned up. The short-lived Sherwood Mine and its adjoining mill are now a series of sculpted earthen terraces.
The original mill next to what was Uranium City is in the final stages of being dismantled. Dawn Mining Co. paid to scoop up radioactive soil along the roadsides.
But, at the center of the reservation, the Midnite Mine remains a festering wound.
TO GET THERE, drive up a dirt road, past weathered, metal-sided buildings littered with debris left from the mining days. Higher on the mountain, massive piles of ore remain.
A steep side road leads up to a rocky outcrop. Harold Campbell walks to the edge of a cliff. At his feet, a vast hole opens up. This is Pit 3. A thick hose snakes from the pit, pumping the eerie blue water up to a building where it's treated to take out heavy metals, radium and uranium.
Campbell drove an ore truck into that pit in the late 1970s, as they dynamited away part of the mountain.
"When they'd blast, we'd drive in, and there was still dust in the air," he remembers.
They would drive to where people equipped with radiation measurers mounted on poles directed them.
"The probers, they were the worst ones. They're probing in here when the stuff is hot. They didn't care about us. They just cared about getting the uranium to build bombs and stuff."
Did the uranium mines make anybody here sick?
Start with this basic fact: It's virtually impossible to say for sure.
No one has done the difficult medical detective work it would take to try answering the question.
But there's ample evidence uranium mining causes lung cancer and other fatal lung diseases. Studies in the Southwest found that Navajo uranium miners in underground mines were three times more likely to get lung cancer and more than twice as likely to get other serious lung diseases. Uranium-mill workers have higher incidences of lung disease, blood cancers and kidney disease.
On the Spokane Reservation, the U.S. Public Health Service recently declared the mine doesn't pose a risk to newcomers if they keep away from it.
But many in the tribe don't believe it. They're angered by the suggestion that it's safe as long as the center of their reservation is treated as a toxic no-man's land. And the report said nothing about what it might have done to people who lived or worked there for years.
Tribal councilman Richard Garry's mother-in-law died of breast cancer. His wife has lupus — a disease of the immune system.
"She got it at a young age. I was bringing the clothes home. It had dust on it," says Garry, who worked at one of the uranium mills. Councilman Matt Wynne's uncle, Hank Wynne, died of emphysema. He was a heavy-equipment operator at the mine starting in the 1970s.
In addition to watching her husband die of emphysema, Pearl McCoy has buried her oldest son, Donald Dennison, who died of liver cancer years after he worked as a mine foreman.
"A long time ago, people died of old age. You didn't hear about cancer," says McCoy. "It was after these mines came in."
In some cases, such as lupus, there's no known link to radiation. There is for emphysema. But the picture is complicated by other things. For example, McCoy's husband also smoked for decades, the single biggest cause of emphysema.
Bob Nelson, who now manages the mothballed mine and mill for Dawn Mining, says he doesn't think the mine has made anyone sick. He's worked there since 1968. For much of the 1970s he was the radiation-safety officer.
Some people "believe there's a lot of gloom and doom there, and there isn't. There is a problem that we're pretty well controlling," he says.
Whether or not the illnesses trace back to the mine, the very question has become like an illness, spreading whispers of doubt when a diagnosis returns, changing the way people interact with the land.
The McCoys stopped fishing in Blue Creek after they saw it running milky white one day. Harold Campbell won't hunt deer and elk on the mountain above the mine. Deb Abrahamson's family stopped gathering chokecherries along Blue Creek. The tribe's library has Geiger counters people can check out.
After visiting people around the reservation last year to talk about the mine, Abrahamson sits in the tribe's tiny casino at the edge of the Spokane River, eating lunch. As she speaks, tears surface. Her voice cracks, words spilling out over the electronic chirps and bells of the slot machines.
"It's like our life revolves around loss a lot of the time . . . We're surrounded, so surrounded by loss and death."
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT is supposed to be doing something to help ease the losses for some miners and their families.
Congress created a program to pay each sick uranium miner, mill worker and ore-truck driver $100,000. It also took the unusual step of apologizing to miners and their families.
To qualify, applicants have to prove they or a dead relative worked at a uranium mine or mill for more than a year before 1972, when all of the uranium was mined for the government. And they must have one of the diseases linked to uranium mining.
But there's no sign any of that money has come to the Spokane reservation.
The Justice Department, which administers the program, says its records don't show payments to a member of the Spokane Tribe, or to anyone who worked at the Midnite Mine.
Pearl McCoy, who would likely be eligible since her husband worked in the mill, hadn't heard of the program. Neither had Garry, the tribal councilmember.
Abrahamson has been trying to boost awareness. She has asked the Justice Department to send someone to talk about it, but she says officials refused.
Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller says the department was never invited to visit the reservation. It did send some forms to the tribe, but did not hear back. Someone from the program would be happy to visit if they're asked, he says.
THERE IS A PLAN to repair the land around the Midnite Mine. But it will leave a lot of scars.
Mining debris would be pushed into the open pits and covered. A factory would clean water leaking out of the mine for the foreseeable future. Blue Creek, it's hoped, will eventually flush its pollution downstream and dilute it in the Spokane River.
The plan is expected to cost $152 million. No one knows when it will be finished. That's because no one knows who's going to pay for it.
Under the federal Superfund law, anyone with a hand in the pollution can be forced to pay for cleaning it. But Dawn Mining Co. has few assets.
That leaves two others: federal taxpayers, and Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp., Dawn Mining's parent company and, today, one of the largest mining corporations in the world.
U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush recently ruled the federal government is partly responsible because it controlled the reservation land where the mining happened.
Newmont, meanwhile, says it shouldn't have to pay because it didn't manage the mine's day-to-day operations. Newmont had a controlling 51 percent share of the Dawn Mining Co. It named a majority of the board of directors. Many of the mine's top managers were longtime Newmont employees who remained on Newmont's payroll while working at the Midnite Mine. An early agreement called for Newmont to manage "all operations" of Dawn.
The EPA, which is suing Newmont to force it to help pay for the cleanup, says that's ample reason for the company to get part of the bill.
The tribe agrees.
"Those responsible for the contamination should be required to clean it up, and Newmont is as responsible as Dawn," says attorney Shannon Work, who represents the Spokane Tribe.
But Newmont says it didn't have control of how the Midnite Mine was run — a crucial point for proving whether it bears responsibility for the pollution. The Newmont workers who ran the mine took orders from Dawn, the company argues in court documents. The management agreement just involved logistical support, the company insists.
"To try to say there may have been some Newmont employees involved and therefore we're liable for it, I don't think that flies so well," says Newmont spokesman Omar Jabara.
Could the new interest in uranium trigger a revival even at this troubled site?
Dawn Mining's Nelson says he's gotten calls from several people interested in getting at the remaining uranium at the Midnite Mine site. The company estimates that as much as 7 million pounds are left.
He tells people: "Well, we aren't going to. But I say, 'If you're interested, have at it.' "
More than half a century after the tribe's encounter with uranium began, leaders show little interest in digging up more of it while they cope with the mess. But neither has the tribe banned uranium mining, as the Navajos did in 2005.
Tribal councilman Wynne says he has been approached about restarting the mine.
"I don't see it going forward. If I were to have to vote today or tomorrow on it, I would vote 'No.' I'm pretty much an outdoors guy. I'm really close with my traditional ties, to how I feel about Mother Earth, and I just can't see doing it again."
Warren Cornwall is a Seattle Times staff reporter. He can be reached at 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.