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SHAWL Society reports on mine cleanup, need for vigilance


Deb and Twa-le Abrahamson
Deb and Twa-le Abrahamson report on clean-up on reservation.

Twa-le and Deb Abrahamson of the SHAWL (Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land) Society recently reported on the status of cleanup at the Ford Mill Site, the Midnight Mine and uranium levels in well water on the Spokane Reservation.

They and other tribal environmental leaders met with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice, following up on an Environmental Justice Summit, which had been scheduled in October 2013 and was canceled because of the government shutdown.

Matthew Tehada and Jiesa Jackson came to Spokane recently to meet with them at the Environmental Justice Office.  Other tribes have scheduled times to meet with them to share their concerns about environmental justice and their updates about environmental issues on their reservations with the EPA.

The Spokane Tribe’s list of environmental concerns comes from managers and members related to the Ford Mill Site, the Midnite Mine, and uranium in well waters.

“We had an Environmental Justice grant to test the wells,” Twa-le said, adding that they are also looking at future needs and updating how the Columbia River Treaty relates to tribes.

“We are pushing to include the environmental health of the river in that treaty, as well as power production and flood control, and the passage of salmon over Grand Coulee Dam,” she said.

Another concern relates to having Washington State water quality standards for the river be set with a target of people being able to consume two pounds of fish a day, rather than just 6.5 ounces. 

Twa-le said that will mean limiting discharges from upstream sources of pollution in Canada and Idaho, as well as Washington.

“We also ask the EPA to work intentionally with tribal communities, not just tribal leadership, so that more voices in the communities can be heard,” she said.

Twa-le is air quality project manager for the Spokane Tribe.  Attending the meeting with her were staff for wildlife, water quality and planning.

“Tribal council members are also concerned about the impact of oil and coal transport,” she said, pointing out that both will have impact on air and water quality.

In December, the plan for stages of the Midnite Mine cleanup was released, giving specifications for the clean-up with proposals at given time intervals, Twa-le continued.

“We are more than halfway through the time of the design for cleanup.  Now is the time for comments to review where we are,” she said.  “Comments include discussion of sequencing related to which pit to fill first or second, and where the water will go.”

Twa-le framed with her hands about one cubic foot to indicate the amount of paper in a document on the design.

“We now have more information,” she said.  “Ninety percent of the design will be ready, so we can put bids out next year.  We are unsure who will document assistance or what technical assistance and experts the EPA will provide to review concerns for community members.”

Comments were heard, but Twa-le said there needs to be more community involvement and opportunity for community responses.

The SHAWL Society has been working since 1994 to clean up radioactive contamination and toxic wastes that remain on the Spokane Reservation from mining there between 1955 and 1981.  Twa-le’s mother, Deb Abrahamson, founded it to educate people on the concerns.

The Dawn Mill Site at Ford, which is off the reservation, is overseen by the Department of Health (DOH), because it is in a separate jurisdiction.  If the mine company is not on the clean-up schedule, the DOH is unable to enforce it, Twa-le said.  The company has been delaying. 

That was the first site that led Deb to start SHAWL, because her house is downstream from it.

“While that site is open, the company is able to dump there for free.  It was closed only briefly.  The timeline is to pay $500,000 a month for disposal costs to transport sludge from the water treatment plant from the mine through the reservation to Hanford once Ford is closed,” she said.

“There has been a report of two plumes leaking from that site.  We planned a community meeting.  It was canceled and not rescheduled,” said Twa-le.

“They say they are collecting data, but they have enough data to know plumes are leaking into ground water from Tshimikian Creek, a small creek that is the eastern boundary of the reservation. The mill site is on the other side.  The tribal fish hatchery is near there,” she said.  “The Department of Health is doing extensive studies, allowing Ford to expand the site.  Recent tests found plumes in ground water.” 

While the community water system passed for radiation levels, wells were not included.  With a grant in 2012, the tribal foundation began testing a well at the house closest to the mine.  As it continues to test across the reservation, it has found elevated levels of uranium, radium and gross alpha radioactivity in nearly 35 percent of wells, Twa-le reported.

To deal with elevated levels, the tribe is connecting the homes close to the community to the tribal water system.  It is going house to house to explain different filtration systems.

Twa-le’s office is also doing radon testing in homes, and finding that air quality in homes is 25 percent elevated for radon. 

“For mitigation to improve the air quality in homes, the tribe can install vent systems with funding from the water treatment grant,” she explained. 

The tribe has funds from a $450,000 HUD imminent treatment grant that came in six months ago and an environmental justice grant that came about the same time, she said.

Deb said that the Spokane Tribal Business Council approved on Feb. 21 to the 2011 purchase of 80 acres of fee land (privately owned) on the reservation to Newmont Mining Co., which plans to remove four feet of topsoil and use soil under that for clean fill of the uranium mine pits.

“SHAWL is concerned because the decision was made in a closed session and because it increases the footprint of the operation,” she said.  “As one elder said, ‘They will dig a hole to fill a hole.’”

She realizes the decision was made because the option presented was that trucks would “race” through the community every two minutes with fill dirt from off the reservation, according to the original proposal for the clean-up.

“However, we can set the speed limit and limit the hours for access,” she explained.

The business council approved right-of-way access for the mining company to go over reservation land.  Newmont has a reclamation plan for the acres, and when that is done, Newmont has agreed to sell the land back to the tribe for $1, Deb said.

“The decision has divided people.  It sets a precedent that corporations can buy land and dilute the reservation,” she said, “undermining our sovereignty.”            

For information, call 258-8952 or email


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