Note: This article accompanies another feature story in this special issue on hardrock mining and reclamation.
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 Reservation.
"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 uranium."
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 Chrysler.
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 reclamation.
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.
At 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.
"The 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 that way.
"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 1955.
"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 period.
"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 cleanup operations.
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 trusted.
What especially 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.
Mining 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 law.
"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."
Philosophically, Patric 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.
Dawn 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 lentils.
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 unobtrusive.
"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 pig
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 in Spokane.
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 mining companies.
On this 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.
"You 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 that."
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 coffee.
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.
"That 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 accurate.
"Contamination 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 site.
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 sensible guess.
Eventual 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 responsibility.
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.
As a 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 decades.
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 controversy.
"Look, you're 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 elementary school."
But 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 might.
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 state.
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 decision."
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, Envirocare.
Particularly 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 intermarriage.
Dawn officials 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 business?
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 ago.
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.
But 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 remain.
Bruce Selcraig, a writer in Austin, Texas, is a longtime contributor to High Country News. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.