Cantwell blasts old mining law

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Pledges help for Spokane uranium workers

SPOKANE, Wash. - Spokane Tribal Council member Glenn Ford feels lucky to have made it to 58. Like many former uranium workers on the Spokane Indian Reservation, he was once oblivious to the dangers of radioactivity.

''I worked in solvent extraction where it came down and separated the uranium from this liquid, and I stuck my arms in it, never thinking about it,'' said Ford, who worked at Sherwood Mine.

Dawn Mining operated another uranium mine on the reservation for nearly 30 years. Most people worked at one or the other, or have relatives who did. The high-paying jobs seemed like a blessing in the face of rampant poverty.

''I started working there because it was good money and I wanted to make money for my family, but here I was contaminating them all these years,'' said Harold Campbell, a former mine worker.

Unsuspecting workers regularly brought radioactive dust home on their clothes.

Dawn Mining stopped mining in 1984, but environmental and health consequences remain. Efforts to link illness on the reservation with uranium poisoning have stalled several times.

Now, the Spokanes have a champion in U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who is seeking help through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. She announced her efforts during a speech on mining law reform, which she is leading in the Senate.

The Mining Law of 1872 is a relic of Western expansion that allows companies to buy public land at bargain-basement prices, charges no royalties, lets them pollute the environment and walk away without cleaning up, she said.

The old law does not govern Indian country; it pertains to federal land. But the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007 provides opportunity for tribes to petition against operations that impact their physical, cultural and spiritual interests. Under current law, mining is considered the ''highest and best'' use of public lands, no matter what.

The National Congress of American Indians and other organizations passed resolutions to support mining reform in the House of Representatives last year.

Ford and fellow tribal members met Cantwell at the NATIVE Project, a community and health center in Spokane, to express their gratitude and emphasize difficulties when corporations dodge reclamation. Dawn Mining, a subsidiary of Newmont, is a prime example. Established in 1955, its Midnite Mine was declared a federal Superfund site in 2000, which means taxpayers will foot the bill for cleanup, which is yet to be accomplished.

Toxins still affect the Spokane's waterways, wildlife and culture. Tracing the spread of radioactivity and community education are major activities of the SHAWL Society, a grass-roots group started by Spokane tribal member Deb Abrahamson.

''Previously, the people didn't think about radioactivity in hunting and gathering areas. They were not concerned about riding horses through tailings ponds, paving their driveways with crushed ore, or burning household trash in barrels that once contained uranium sludge. They didn't give a second thought to company trucks rumbling through the reservation, spilling uranium along the way,'' Abrahamason said.

Two years ago, 40 hotspots along the main road were cleaned up, but some people question whether enough was done.

''Finally we got some of that cleaned up, but that's one little area along one road,'' said Margo Hill, whose relatives were uranium workers.

Even though invisible, radioactive pathways have been easier to pinpoint than the connection between uranium and illnesses rampant among tribal members - and getting help is like pushing a mattress uphill.

When tribal members sought advice from the Environmental Protection Agency, they were told to ask the mining company for health records. The mine had been closed for 20 years.

The people asked about a risk assessment.

''Even if it were possible to reconstruct the exact exposures that occurred during mine operations, a risk assessment cannot tell you whether an individual will have a health effect. It will merely estimate the mathematical probability of those health effects occurring,'' EPA advised, according to a record at www.yosemite.epa.gov.

Nevertheless, EPA said gathering peoples' stories would help evaluate the mine's impact on health.

The oral histories reveal an appalling lack of safety information for workers and their families. Employees ate lunch on uranium ore piles or in shacks where ore was stored. They tracked uranium into their homes, collapsed on the couch after a double shift and slept in their radioactive clothes while children played in the dust.

''Women were a significant part of the work force, as compared to other mines,'' Abrahamson said. ''Many of those who contracted cancer were the mothers, the aunties and the sisters. They also cleaned the clothes for their sons, brothers and husbands who worked in the mines.''

Cantwell said she will help access radiation exposure screening for the tribe and track the uranium worker compensation process.

''We've come further than we've ever been before,'' Abrahamson said.