WELLPINIT, Wash. - At 7:30 on the evening of April 4, 1954, twin brothers Jim and John LaBret loaded a finicky $54 Geiger counter into Jim's blue "46 Chrysler and set off on a moonlight mission to find uranium. The brothers, one-eighth Spokane Indians, occasionally hunted on the tribe's reservation.
The lanky LaBrets were among many in the fearful
"50s trying to claim a $10,000 reward offered by the Atomic Energy
Commission to anyone finding major deposits of the fluorescent,
radioactive ore that fueled much of America's weapons programs.
Jim LaBret is now near 80,
and still prospecting in Nevada, but he remembers that around 9:00
that April night they were following a wild horse trail to a rock
outcropping near Lookout Mountain on the Spokane
"The rocks were
glowing green," recalls Jim, excited to this day about the
discovery. "John had the Geiger counter - we called it a super
sniffer - and background (radiation) on the super sniffer was about
15 clicks a minute. But around them rocks there was no way you
could count the clicks. It was going crazy. We knew we had
Soon the brothers
were being courted by the likes of Chevron, Anaconda and Phelps
Dodge, while speculators hurried to what the LaBrets would call the
Midnite Mine, in honor of the hour they returned to Jim's old
For Jim LaBret, who
prospered enough that he never bothered to claim the AEC's $10,000,
the discovery of uranium on the quiet Spokane Reservation was, in
all ways, wonderful.
"Uranium has put lots of people to work at the
mine and mill," he says proudly today. "They've learned how to make
money and handle it right. I think it's the greatest thing that's
ever happened to the reservation."
LaBret is at least partly right. Uranium mining
did indeed bring a degree of prosperity to this alluring but
economically blighted patch of eastern Washington. But all that is
left of that prosperity is an intractable mess that has led to a
decade of litigation, environmental studies and mind-numbing
administrative law decisions. The battle is over
No money now
Dawn Mining Company, owner of the Midnite Mine,
claims it cannot afford $20 million to clean and close its
contaminated mill site, which sits 25 miles east of the mine (and
off the Spokane Reservation) in tiny Ford, Wash. To finance the
reclamation, the company sought a state license to import very
low-level radioactive soil to fill up the mill's empty tailings
ponds. Fees from the dumping would clean up the mill, and
eventually, the mine.
first, the state of Washington didn't go for Dawn's plan. It ruled
in 1991 that the best way to clean up the Dawn mill would be to
fill the tailings ponds with clean dirt. Dawn fought the ruling and
two years ago got the state to reverse itself and allow the
importation of slightly radioactive soil, known as 11(e)2 material
in federal regulations.
company said it couldn't afford the clean-fill option and might go
bankrupt," Washington's secretary of health, Bruce Miyahara, was
quoted as saying. "It was a threat." Another state official
described Dawn's tactics as "blackmail," though technically, he
probably meant extortion.
Now Dawn has the permit, but it needs disposal
contracts. And narrow rural roads still need to be widened to
accommodate the trucks. There are also the various court actions
contesting Dawn's proposed importing of the 11(e)(2) material. So
nobody expects trucks to rumble down the narrow, winding forest
roads anytime soon. The Spokane tribe, environmental activists and
local politicians who are fighting the proposal hope to keep it
"Why is it always
near or on a reservation when they want to dump something?" said
David BrownEagle, a Spokane, before the Spokane city council.
The intensity of some of the
opponents has surprised supporters of the Dawn approach because, at
least on paper, the company's plans do not seem all that ominous.
It would be bringing in soil that has the same level of
radioactivity as the waste ore that has piled up since
"This stuff," says Dawn
vice president Bob Nelson, "is more like dirt than dirt." A company
leaflet claims that over five years a person would receive five
times more radiation from one chest X-ray per year than from
sitting next to a pile of 11(e)2 stuff for the same
"It's incorrect to
even call it "low-level" radioactive waste," says Nelson.
"Low-level has a definition in our business, and there is some
low-level stuff that can give you a lethal dose in six seconds.
What we're talking about is very, very low." The soil is so benign,
he says, that trucks could legally carry it without hazardous waste
placards, or even a tarp, if blowing dust weren't a concern. What's
more, the company promises to take no profit during the
five-to-ten-year importation of dirt, directing all money into the
company hopes to win waste-hauling contracts by charging $4 to $8 a
cubic foot for disposal - its primary competitor reportedly charges
about $8 now - and then use the proceeds (roughly $20 million) to
clean up the mill site and begin reclaiming the Midnite Mine, whose
reclamation is estimated at $10 million to $160 million. (The vast
range of this estimate shows just how rough all the numbers put
forth about costs and completion dates are.)
As Dawn sees it, the company isn't just taking
care of a mess, but creating an innovative, community-assisted,
self-funding cleanup that saves Washington taxpayers millions of
dollars. "(It) could become a model for clean-ups nationally," says
Dawn literature distributed to local residents, "because it
safeguards the public health and the streams and pine forests
around Ford even as it pays for itself."
The opponents have stopped trying to refute
these warm and fuzzy claims. Instead, they charge, a company that
suggests it might abandon its own uranium mine cannot be
upsets critics is Dawn's 51-percent shareholder, Denver-based
Newmont, Inc., a multi-billion-dollar multinational that happens to
be the largest gold producer in North America and second largest in
the world. Newmont and Dawn are far from distant cousins - they
share office space, contract services to each other, Newmont
employees sit on Dawn's board, Newmont guarantees loans for Dawn,
and Dawn has described itself as a Newmont subsidiary. Despite the
intertwined nature of the companies, Dawn officials say Newmont has
no moral or legal obligation to help in the Dawn Mine cleanup. The
state of Washington appears to agree, at least on the legal
argument. It doubts that its lawyers could pierce this corporate
veil in court, although the state also seems to lack the political
will even to try.
activists have heard this tune before. "It's a trend with mining
companies," says Will Patric, the Montana-based organizer for the
Mineral Policy Center in Washington, D.C. "They basically
strong-arm regulatory agencies into getting their way. Dawn/Newmont
has been jerking around the state of Washington and its people for
more than a decade. They've made a mockery of state environmental
"And this corporate
veil stuff," adds Patric, "where Newmont says it has nothing to do
with Dawn, and that Dawn can't afford the cleanup, that's nonsense.
This is about accountability and environmental justice."
would like to see the fight against Dawn/Newmont focus more on what
he sees as a corporate evasion of responsibility for cleaning up a
mess they made. But pragmatically, local opponents know that this
accusation has been made repeatedly for years, without a victory to
show for it. So they have focused more attention lately on a basic
grievance: big trucks.
wants to import about 50,000 truckloads, or 40 million cubic feet,
of this soil over five to seven years. It would come by rail to
Spokane, some 45 miles to the southeast, from places like New York
and Missouri. It would then be transferred in sealed containers to
trucks for the journey to Ford. This is about 38 Spokane-to-Ford
round-trip truck routes a day for roughly 260 days a year, mainly
on two-lane country roads that already carry logging trucks, grain
trailers, farm machinery and school buses.
"It wouldn't matter to us if they were hauling
oatmeal," says Bruce Johnson, city manager of Reardan, a farm
community of 500 that is west of Spokane on the proposed route.
"They're talking about 30 or 40 trucks a day! And what if one of
them did have a hot load or some toxic chemicals. We'll gain
nothing from it but headaches."
Reardan is an Anglo town. But it has the same
concerns as Wellpinit, which is the urban center for most of the
Spokane Reservation's 2,200 members. Wellpinit is hardly more than
a sunny spot among the ponderosa pines, at the intersection of red
hairline roads on the map. Clustered in small buildings and
trailers where the roads meet are the tribal offices, a cultural
center/Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, an Indian Health Service
clinic and a Bureau of Indian Affairs office. There's also a Church
of Christ and a Catholic mission, a gas station, and the occasional
rumble of a tractor through a small field of
Overall, the Spokane
Reservation has that peaceful, rural feel that is often so
deceptive about Indian lands. The social problems here have more in
common with south-central Los Angeles than with Mayberry. A few
years ago unemployment on the reservation was near 80 percent, says
Debbie Abrahamson, a part-Spokane, part-Navajo who works in family
counseling with many tribe members and who also oppose the
Dawn/Newmont cleanup plan.
"There is a lot of crack cocaine usage,
alcoholism and just chronic depression on the reservation," states
Abrahamson, who says she is also recovering from alcoholism, drug
addiction and the Catholic church for 16 years.
"My life is like so many. There is a lot of
cultural self-hate. People are in a survivor mode here. It's hard
for them to get excited about radiation. It's so invisible, so
"But even if we
do speak out," she says, explaining the tribe's passivity in
defending its legal rights in areas like fishing disputes, "our
voices are not heard. You have to have an expectation of change to
want to participate in that (white) system."
The 812th guinea
Driving out of Wellpinit
on one of those roads that may soon be carrying truck loads of
11(e)2 dirt, I soon come to a homemade sign with the letters D.M.C.
- an understated touch. There, I park in a wide turnout and wait
for Dawn Mining Co. officials, Bob Nelson, the plant's general
manager, and David Delcour, an executive vice president who lives
Nelson is a good
ol" boy Vietnam vet in jeans and boots, drives a big Chevy pickup,
rose from laborer to executive vice president at Dawn Mining
without a college degree. What he doesn't know about uranium and
environmental remediation is probably not worth knowing. Delcour,
tall, with a long, hound-dog face, wears a gray business suit,
enjoys gold and has done environmental consulting for several
hot, dry August afternoon we crowd into Nelson's truck for a tour
of the mine and millsite. We start with Nelson clipping a ballpoint
pen-size dosimeter to my shirt - it measures radioactivity - and
then passing a Geiger counter over my hiking boots. Looking
mischievous, Nelson whips out from his back pocket a package of
Coleman lantern mantles.
know, these things are more radioactive than anything we'll ever
bury up here," he says, as the Geiger counter's needle dances.
"They're made with thorium so they'll glow. Betcha didn't know
I feel certain I am
the 812th guinea pig for Nelson's demonstration, but I duly make
note - on the next camping trip, don't blow the mantles into the
A few hundred yards
into our journey, we pass Wellpinit High School, where a large sign
proclaims it the home of the Redskins. Delcour can't resist the
irony. "I find that a curious issue," he says, referring to the
campaign to remove Indian-themed mascots from the Anglo sports
world. "It makes you wonder who is behind that issue ..."
His remark segues nicely
into a discussion of "environmental racism' - a charge that has
drifted through the Dawn Mine controversy, but one which they
dismiss as nonsensical.
doesn't seem relevant to this site," says Delcour, who chooses
words carefully. "This is an ore body discovered by tribe members.
But we understand that rhetoric gets out of control."
"It's bullshit, and we know
it," says Nelson. "I grew up with these people (Spokanes). When I
first heard (the allegation of) environmental racism, I frankly
thought ... are they talking about the Indians? I never considered
them a minority. It was surprising, like something you'd see on 60
Minutes, the racial issues and whatnot."
"Frankly," Delcour interjects, "right now is the
longest we've ever discussed it."
The pickup climbs several more miles of gravel
road and into the terraced, denuded landscape of the Midnite mine
site. From the sky - I had some aerial photos with me - the land
that has been scraped bare here looks uniformly tan, with a
turquoise jewel (the mine pit filled with water) in the middle. But
on the ground you're dwarfed by large hills of black-, brown- and
rust-colored waste ore that can't be profitably mined, says
Delcour, because of the depressed uranium market.
"We would need uranium to be
at about $50 a pound for this to be feasible," Delcour says.
"Currently it's about $9." We climb up a bit more, and there,
looking more tranquil and intriguing than I expected, is the mine
pit itself. The pit is 350 feet deep at the back wall, but is
filled only up to about 80 feet with deep blue water, colored with
manganese, iron, copper, aluminum, but not - Nelson says - with
arsenic, lead or mercury.
"Almost without exception," Nelson says in the
still August heat, "people who come up here, especially ones from
the East, say this is kind of pretty." The water in the pit is
acidic, Nelson says, but not nearly as much so as a lemon, whose pH
might be around 1.5. "It's about a 4," Nelson says of the pit
water. "I drank some once to prove that it wouldn't kill me - at
least immediately." I ask if the tribe's contention that Chamokane
Creek and other local streams have been harmed by mine water runoff
is a negotiable word," says Nelson, who suggests that the tribe's
fish hatchery pollutes its streams far more than the mine ever did.
"There are streams that have been affected by our operation," he
concedes. "The horribleness of it, however, is debatable."
Like many tribes, the
Spokane tribe has very limited resources, says Shannon Work, the
tribe's lead attorney. "We are, however, in the process of
identifying and obtaining funding to conduct studies to learn the
nature and extent of the harm."
Dawn has submitted a mine reclamation plan -
-basically, smooth it over and plant grass," Nelson says - to the
Bureau of Land Management, which will soon do an environmental
impact statement. If Dawn's plan to import waste is overturned by
the state or the courts, Delcour says the company would be forced
to use its $14 million bond to clean up the mill, and then would
not have any money left over to reclaim the mine. If that happened,
the mine would probably be declared a federal Superfund
Back in the pickup,
we're headed 25 miles east to see what the fury is really about -
the 820-acre millsite, and particularly a tailings disposal area,
TDA #4. It is a 28-acre, somewhat triangular, 70-foot-deep pit that
sits nearly empty next to three large evaporation ponds, which are
full with uranium-contaminated water. Underneath those ponds are
huge black plastic liners made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE)
that feel about as thick as a rigid plastic garbage can, one of
those 70-gallon jobs you wheel out to the curb, but far more
resistant to ultraviolet light.
Under Dawn's proposal, it would fill TDA #4 with
40 million cubic feet of radioactive soil. This is the 11e(2)
material it is licensed to dispose of, most of which would come
from private nuclear power companies and DOE sites in towns such as
St. Louis, Mo., and Tonawanda, N.Y.
The speed of that disposal program depends on
Dawn's ability to win contracts, but Nelson thinks eight years is a
cleanup of the mill site, however, could easily take three times
that long or more. Here's why it's so uncertain, and complex.
While the 11(e)2 project is
running, Dawn at the same time must wait for some 140 million
gallons of uranium-contaminated water to evaporate in three nearby
holding ponds. Since these ponds are open and still collect water,
how fast they will evaporate depends on how wet or dry the years
are going to be. Dawn's most optimistic guess is that it could take
12 years for the ponds to fully empty; they've also planned for it
taking as long as 22 years.
Why can't they simply drain the ponds? State of
Washington law, which governs the mill but not the mine, prohibits
the dumping of any uranium-contaminated water.
Reclamation of the mill site, under Dawn's plan,
can only begin after all the 11(E)2 material is brought in by
trucks and the contaminated water has evaporated. Then, the entire
150-acre cluster of ponds will be covered with another
"impermeable" liner and that will be covered with a 15-foot layer
of clean fill dirt. Dawn estimates it could take three years to
bring in the 3.7 million cubic yards of dirt.
Finally, Dawn will have to cover the mound with
grass and pine trees, construct diversion ditches to keep water
away from it, monitor the site for five years, and then turn it
back over to all of us - the Department of Energy - as our
If all this
sounds like a quarter of a century of moving dirt from one part of
the country to another, that explains why tribal and environmental
critics see it as a futile exercise that only stands to enrich
lawyers and truckers.
sandpiper skims on cue across one of the tailings disposal areas, I
ask Delcour if he thought Dawn had any reason to apologize to the
Spokanes for any of its actions over the past four
Maybe the company
should apologize, Delcour says facetiously, for the price of
uranium not staying high enough so the Spokanes could continue
receiving royalty checks from the mine. Not meaning to sound
"flippant," he wonders if, while the mine provided good jobs and
the tribe was receiving an estimated $11 million in royalties,
there were such grave concerns about radiation.
The men seem to think the Spokanes have been
manipulated by outside (and white) environmental extremists. They
sound exasperated and genuinely bewildered at the
talking about unringing a bell," says Delcour. "This mine was built
in the "50s before reclamation laws. Now we require funding and
bonding of reclamation at the outset of these projects.
"I'd be happy to apologize
to the tribe," he says, finally, "but in the "50s, I was in
where Nelson and Delcour see a deal that was once good for both the
company and the tribe, and that now has some difficulties, the
Spokanes see the breaking of a relationship, with them left as
economic losers stuck with a physical mess. Even though 40 to 70 of
its members worked at Dawn, there is the perception that the
radioactive soil is being brought in because of the tribe's small
population, high unemployment, and lack of political
The Spokane tribal
council has challenged Dawn's 11(e)2 disposal license (and lost),
charging that the reservation's aquifer has already been damaged
and that surface streams may be imperiled by mining wastes.
"You feel like strangling
the company," says David Wynecoop Jr., secretary of the Spokane
tribal business council. "All you hear is the same old crap. You
don't get any truth after meeting with the company lawyers."
Work, the Spokane tribe
attorney, says the tribal leaders have met with a succession of
four different Dawn presidents. "They all say, "Let's work together
and form this great union and get it cleaned up," but they
stonewall us on everything. I would think there's a lot of regret
that uranium was ever discovered here. It's like a bad dream."
Yet while health and safety
issues have made compelling headlines in other uranium-related
controversies on Indian lands, Spokane activists can only hint at
"elevated" cancer rates on the reservation and lament that fewer
tribe members fish local creeks for fear of radiation. Work says
the tribe is now asking federal agencies for assistance in tracking
diseases on the reservation "to determine whether the same kinds of
problems exist on the Spokane Reservation that are found in other
areas where radiation exposure has occurred."
The tribe is not alone locally in its
opposition. State representatives who are polar opposites
politically have joined to oppose Dawn's plan, and both the Spokane
city council and Spokane County commissioners have passed
resolutions against it, though they are legally powerless to stop
the shipments. (Presumably, state or federal court orders could
stop everything, but that seems unlikely at this point. Attorneys
say procedural challenges to licenses may still be an option.)
"It's a sweet deal for Dawn," said Spokane County Commissioner Kate
McCaslin. "Federal taxpayers pay for this. Dawn looks good, the
East gets rid of its waste and the West gets dumped on again."
For some opponents, it is an
intense issue of East-West priorities within the state. Forever
rivals, the west has hip Seattle, a fabulous coast and exceptional
national parks, while the east is often dismissed as a vast
farming, timber and mining region whose dreary towns can rarely
organize themselves for their own good. Unfair it may be, but this
perception has shaped generations of public policy in the
And, certainly, many
Washington residents, having been irradiated and lied to for a half
century by officials at the plutonium bomb plant at Hanford, oppose
anything connected to nuclear waste. Since 1944, more than 444
billion gallons of chemical and radioactive waste stored at Hanford
have leaked from the site, contaminating large areas of
groundwater. Bringing more waste to Washington, these voices say,
is a cruel joke.
From afar it
might seem that the Dawn Mine quagmire dominates public debate in
eastern Washington, but the truth is that the tribal members and
locals who would be most affected seem beaten into ambivalence or
submission. "We're just tired of the whole thing," one middle-aged
Spokane woman told me over the phone. "We just want them to make a
A dogged grassroots effort
Fighting that pervasive attitude is a dogged
grassroots group called Dawn Watch, led by two energetic locals,
Owen Berio and Estar Holmes.
They look like central-casting environmental
activists at first. They drive beat-up cars littered with flyers,
lack sleep and talk in acronyms. "Does NEPA cover FUSRAP or NORM?"
Raised in Greenwich Village,
N.Y., and once a reporter for small Washington papers, Holmes lives
in Springdale, north of Ford, with a son, in a weathered trailer
where the computer, fax and copy machine churn constantly. Berio is
62 and lives on a farm with some cattle and alfalfa. A retired
electrical worker with the Bonneville Power Administration, his
thick arms, stocky build and beard make him look gruffer than he
really is - sort of an Ed Asner with trifocals.
Politically, they aren't cut from liberal cloth.
They see unchecked corporate power (read: Newmont) as the common
denominator in many of the country's problems, but Berio has
supported many more Republicans than Democrats, while Holmes
sympathizes with various right-wing "patriot" groups in the
Northwest and says "unmarked black helicopters' are indeed up to
something evil in eastern Washington. These contrarian leanings may
actually help Dawn Watch, which professes to have made allies
across the political spectrum, from urban feminists to gun nuts,
tree huggers to Bible-thumpers.
Working on many fronts, Berio is usually awake
by 5 a.m. and reading hydrology reports and regulatory memos, while
Holmes might meet with a tribal elder, call a half-dozen reporters,
then search the Web at night for details of Newmont's gold holdings
in Peru and Uzbekistan. They organize petition-delivering photo-ops
with the governor, meet with farmers who they hope will oppose
Dawn/Newmont out of fear that foreign competitors will malign
"nuked" Washington produce, and trade information with Dawn's
corporate competition in the waste business,
offensive to Dawn Watch is Newmont's contention that it is merely a
shareholder in Dawn Mining and bears no responsibility for the
cleanup. Berio and Holmes say faxes on Dawn's letterhead show they
were sent from Newmont fax machines, that Dawn business cards say
Dawn is a "subsidiary of Newmont Mining Corporation," that the two
companies share office space in the same Denver building and that
the two companies have a history of managerial
say they contract with Newmont to do some legal and accounting
work. But even if Dawn Watch caught both companies' execs playing
Twister in the nude there's no guarantee it would raise the level
of outrage one iota back in Stevens County, Wash. "You would be
amazed at the number of people," says Holmes, "who know absolutely
nothing about any of this."
It is a hard sell for Dawn opponents, even with
the emotion-charged label of radioactivity igniting the issue.
There are no poignant victims, and even the environmental racism
card is hard to play with conviction because the tribe welcomed the
uranium dollars for so long with little regard for future risk.
Many people do not see Dawn's proposal as an imminent health
hazard, but only a potential highway nuisance.
Only a few think about the long-term mining
policy questions involved here, such as: If Dawn is allowed to do
this, why wouldn't other mine operators want to cut their
reclamation costs by also becoming radioactive dumps? Will every
Western mining town with an empty pit be thrown into competition
for the nation's lucrative radioactive trash
Holmes and Berio
say that in the early days of Dawn Watch they asked for help from
large national environmental organizations but were rebuffed, told
the issue was too small and not compelling enough, which makes one
wonder if that isn't the same conclusion Dawn Mining and Newmont
came to - for different reasons, of course - long, long
It is a familiar story
in mining. The big picture is governed by the 1872 Mining Law: free
access to minerals on public land, no royalties, and the
presumption by federal agencies that whatever their impacts, mines
should be permitted.
after the mining is over, federal policy seems to disappear, and
reclamation becomes a patchwork of local arrangements and
accommodations and economic pressures. At Dawn, for example, it is
a struggle between the tribes, local government, state government
and the company. Only when the patchwork fails does the federal
government come back in with the Superfund Laws and its lawsuits.
By then, of course, the
wealth is long gone, and only the environmental costs and impacts
Bruce Selcraig, a writer in Austin, Texas, is a
longtime contributor to High Country News. He can be e-mailed at