In July 2018, the Newmont Mining Company (Newmont), the company responsible for implementing EPA’s selected remedy for the Midnite Mine Superfund Site on the Spokane Indian Reservation, requested that the EPA approve a substantially less stringent cleanup level to address contaminated surface materials at the Site (i.e., soil, ore, proto-ore, waste rock, overburden, and materials used in haul road construction) through a process called an Explanation of Significant Differences (ESD). Under EPA’s 2006 Record of Decision (ROD) for the Site, the cleanup level for Radium-226 in surface soils is 4.7 picocurie of radium per gram (pCi/g). EPA selected this cleanup level based on its determination that this is the average background level of radium in undisturbed soil surrounding the Mine. Now, as Newmont enters its third year of implementing EPA’s selected cleanup at the Site, the company has proposed that cleanup levels for Radium-226 in surface soils should be increased to as much as 18 pCi/g; which would be three times the cleanup level set in the 2006 ROD.
Possible reasons for the request
Newmont claims that the background levels of contamination that were determined from soil sampling done during the Remedial Investigation (RI), which were the basis for EPA’s selected cleanup standard in the 2006 ROD, need to be re-evaluated for correctness. Newmont is concerned that a very large area of the Site will need to be excavated to achieve the Radium-226 cleanup level for surface materials. They are also concerned that if they are required to excavate such a large area, they will run into problems storing contaminated materials, and treating contaminated water.
To support its request for EPA approval to relax the ROD’s existing cleanup level of 4.7 pCi/g, Newmont sampled some areas not impacted by mining in 2017. However, the radium levels in the 2017 samples were all lower than the background radium level of 4.7 pCi/g that EPA set in the 2006 ROD. Newmont’s request to change the Radium-226 cleanup level set in the 2006 ROD does not consider this data, and is based on its reanalysis (or re-interpretation) of the original RI data that EPA used to set cleanup levels in the 2006 ROD.
Some Spokane tribal members, nearby residents, and others are skeptical of Newmont’s ESD request for several reasons. First, it is unclear why or how Newmont plans to re-interpret the background levels of contamination that formed the basis of the original Record of Decision.
Second, as a for-profit corporation, Newmont would have every reason to avoid costly cleanup, especially since the area of the cleanup is much larger than expected.
Third, background sampling during the RI was well thought out, and carried out in accordance with the law. The sampling information provided in Newmont’s request for revised cleanup levels is based on re-interpretation of the RI data, and 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 cleanup.
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; and
eating terrestrial plants, fish, and roots in mining-affected area, their drainages, or from Blue Creek.
Some tribal members are very concerned that high incidence rates of cancer may be related to the former operation of the uranium mine and mill site, and have expressed hope that an epidemiological study be conducted. During the years when the mine was in operation, local employees were exposed directly to dust and to other radionuclides and metals that can cause adverse health effects. 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 streams. The tribe has posted warning signs in these areas stating that water, plants, fish and animals along these drainages may be unsafe to use.
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 using proper protocols, and which is openly available and shared with the community.
If you’d like to support the Spokane tribal members in holding EPA and Newmont accountable please write to Linda Meyer. You can use the sample letter (link):
For more information about the project contact:
Community Involvement Corrdinator
1200 Sixth Avenue
Suite 155, RAD-123
Seattle, WA 98101-3123
(800) 424-4372 x8321
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