Newmont Mining Co. requests lower clean-up standard on Washington State's largest Superfund site
In July of 2018, the Newmont Mining Company (Newmont), the company responsible for cleaning up soil and water contamination at the former Midnite Mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation, has requested that the EPA significantly relax a previously-agreed standard of clean-up, by initiating a legal process called an Explanation of Significant Difference (ESD). According to the 1999 Record of Decision (ROD), Newmont is responsible for removing contaminants from the soil around the abandoned uranium mine to a level of 4.7 picograms of radium per liter. This level was determined to match the average background level of radium that exists in undisturbed soil surrounding the mine. Now, five years into the clean-up, the company wants to almost double the acceptable level of contamination to 8.2 picograms of radium per liter.
Possible reasons for the request
Newmont claims that the background levels of contamination that were found in the soil in 1999 and upon which the ROD was agreed, need to be re-evaluated for correctness. They are concerned that a very large area on the reservation will have to be excavated to achieve earlier-agreed background levels of contamination. Disturbing such a large area of soil, they say, will release further contaminants into the air, potentially causing more exposure than is being prevented by remediation. They are also concerned that if they are required to excavate such a large area, they will run into problems store the contaminated tailings, and treating contamined water. To support this request to alter the cleanup levels, Newmont independently sampled some areas not impacted by mining, and found that levels of Ra-226 exceeded the cleanup level identified in the ROD.
Spokane tribal members, nearby residents, and others are skeptical of Newmont’s ESD request for several reasons. First, the sampling protocols that Newmont used were not provided, and the techniques they used may not result in appropriate, representative natural background results. Second, it seems unlikely that background levels of contamination would have changed from 1999 to today. By changing the testing locations, eliminating outlier data points, and changing the method of soil testing, it may be possible to present a different picture of background contamination than what was originally found and agreed. The bottom line is that the additional sampling Newmont accomplished likely do not result in an appropriate natural background level for Ra-226 or other radionuclides.
Second, as a for-profit corporation, Newmont would have every reason to avoid costly cleanup, especially since the area of the clean-up is much larger than expected.
Third, the background sampling for the RI/FS was well thought out. The sampling information provided in Newmont’s request for revised cleanup levels may not be in accordance with the law.
Fourth, the EPA as an agency has been weakened by decreased funding and support and has fewer resources to put toward research and enforcement, providing Newmont an opportunity to stall or change the negotiated timeline and levels of clean-up.
What's at stake
Although it is not possible at this time to verify that residents living on the Spokane Indian Reservation experience an unusually high level of cancer and other health issues, a Public Health Assessment about the mine was compiled by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in 2010.
In the assessment, ATSDR stated potential exposures to environmental contaminants at the Midnite Mine site were as follows:
Exposure to site contaminants (metals or radionuclides) is a public health hazard for individuals who use the mining-affected area for traditional and subsistence activities. This category indicates that long-term exposure to site contaminants could cause harmful health effects. The specific activities associated with these exposures are as follows:
drinking water from drainages and seeps in the mining-affected areas;
breathing water vapor generated by heating water from drainages and seeps during sweat lodge ceremonies;
accidentally ingesting sediments along seeps and drainages in the mining-affected area;
eating terrestrial plants, roots, fish, and roots in mining-affected area, their drainages, or from Blue Creek.
Many tribal members are very concerned that high incidence rates of cancer may be attributed directly to the former operation of the uranium mine and mill site. When the mine was in operation, local employees were exposed to dust and other direct exposures to uranium, radium and zinc. Families were exposed as well when workers came home in contaminated clothing, wearing contaminated shoes.
Additional exposure would have been possible when the mine was closed but not fenced off, making it easy for people to walk through the site. Water collected at the mine and mill sites has percolated into the groundwater and surface streams, including Tsimikan Creek and Blue Creek. Both are tributaries to the nearby Spokane River, which is a popular camping and sport fishing area. Wildlife have had full access to the mine and mill sites (before fencing) and the surface water. The tribe currently restricts hunting and fishing in both drainages.
The health of residents, both human and nonhuman, present and future, requires a clean and livable environment, free from contaminants in the soil, air, and water. The reason this area has a Superfund designation is because mining contaminants (particularly, Ra-226, lead 210 and uranium) are found in concentrations that would cause cancer in greater than 1 in 10,000 people.
Support from the broader community is needed
Spokane tribal members have requested support from concerned citizens living in the surrounding region in holding the EPA and Newmont accountable for cleaning the mining site to previously-agreed levels and for amending the agreed ROD only with data collected with proper protocols that is openly available and shared with the community.
Below is a sample letter to Linda Meyer, the EPA project manager of the Midnite Mine Superfund Site. It requests additional transparency and accountability to the community during the clean-up process, and better due-diligence around the mining company's latest request to relax the clean-up standard.
Using this letter as a template, we ask area residents to please call, email or mail this request to Ms Meyer. Her contact information:
Remedial Project Manager
U.S. EPA Region 10
1200 6th Ave. Suite 155 M/S ECL-12
Seattle, WA 98101
(206) 553-8581 (Fax)
More information is available from the SHAWL society: http://shawlsociety.blogspot.com