Newmont Mining Company seeking EPA approval of less stringent clean-up standard on Washington State's largest Superfund site
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.
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 cleanup process, and better due-diligence around the mining company's latest request to relax the cleanup 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
SAMPLE letter to Linda Meyer, EPA Project Manager for Midnite Mine
Dear Ms. Meyer:
I am writing because of my concern about the cleanup of the Midnite Mine, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. I recently became aware of this cleanup, and I respectfully ask that the public be given additional opportunities to learn about the mine and the cleanup. For the benefit of the public, I request that a series of public meetings be held, both on the Reservation, and in Spokane.
I understand that Newmont Mining Company (Newmont) has proposed to modify the cleanup levels that were required by the EPA’s 2006 Record of Decision (ROD). I am very concerned that modifying the Site cleanup levels set in the 2006 ROD will result in increasing the cancer risk for Spokane tribal members. Therefore, before the EPA considers modifying existing cleanup standards, I request that:
EPA review the background sampling data collected during the Remedial Investigation (RI) and confirm that the Agency followed CERCLA guidance in evaluating and selecting Site cleanup levels for surface materials. If EPA confirms this, I request that Newmont’s re-analysis of Site background and cleanup levels not be considered further, and that EPA reject Newmont’s request to approve an Explanation of Significant Differences that would change existing Site cleanup levels set in the 2006 ROD. Iif EPA decides to change Site cleanup levels, it should only do so through the CERCLA administrative process for ROD amendments.
For the benefit of the public, that EPA provide a white paper that clearly explains how the existing cleanup levels were calculated. This paper should also include a section about health risks posed by contaminated water and sediment in Blue Creek, which is an important cultural site for the Spokane Indian community.
EPA should ensure that all components of the Community Involvement Plan (CIP) are being followed, and all updates are provided at public locations in Wellpinit, Ford, and Spokane. In addition to providing these resources at information depositories, please ensure that the EPA’s website for Midnite Mine is regularly updated. Furthermore, EPA should provide the public with website access to all Midnite remedial documents that are relevant to EPA’s consideration of Newmont’s ESD request.
Thanks in advance for considering my comments.
Sincerely, Your Name