WELLPINIT, Wash. - Dawn Mining Co. has a uranium mine in the middle of the Spokane Indian Reservation that's on the EPA Superfund clean-up list.
It's in the middle of a lawsuit filed by the tribe for environmental racism, and it's looking down the barrel of another potential suit by Dawn Watch, a committee of local concerned citizens.
About the only thing going Dawn's way is recent acceptance by the Washington State Department of Health of an amendment to its license agreement for closure proceedings on its uranium mill bordering the Spokane Reservation. The U.S. Department of Energy and the Northwest Interstate Compact are reviewing the company's proposed amendments as well as Health's recommendations.
Representatives of both the tribe and Dawn Watch say proposed amendments are unacceptable. Dawn Watch president Owen Berio said unless Dawn Mining Co. meets certain closure requirements, the next step is legal action. The tribe, already in the midst of legal action, sees it as a matter of wait and see, said a representative.
At issue are the methods by which the mill will be closed as well as disposal of millions of gallons of "sludge" - a mix of radioactive material and highly acidic water building up and seeping out of the mining pits at the Midnight Mine on the reservation.
Under the existing license, Dawn Mining is permitted to import uranium tailings, labeled 11E2 material, from out-of-state Department of Energy cleanup sites and dump it in a tailings disposal area at the mill site. Revenue to be derived has been earmarked by Dawn Mining for its cleanup of the mill.
But the idea of importing radioactive material to fill the estimated 40 million cubic foot Tailings Disposal Area 4 (TDA4) at the mill site was met with outrage by both the Spokane and local citizens of Ford where the mill is situated. Not only would the 11E2 material average 3000 curies, a much higher level of radioactivity than what was currently processed from the Midnight Mine, but hundreds of trucks would transport the out-of-state tailings through the middle of Ford.
The potential for toxic spills on school properties and businesses lining the route, threatening the life and health of children and citizens, Native and non-Native, was the main factor in tribal and public disgruntlement.
Under the proposed amendments, Dawn Mining agrees to forego importation of 11E2 material in exchange for modifications to a current closure plan. These modifications include a re-contouring of the cover design over TDA4 at the mill, and permission to take the acidic water and sludge material from the Midnight Mine, which the company is currently processing at the mill, and dispose it directly into TDA4.
"They said if we approve these things, they would be able to save quite a bit of money and they could reclaim the mill site without going out and importing uranium mill tailings," says Gary Robertson, head of waste management for the State Department of Health.
The proposed method would also speed up the process of cleaning up and closing the mill.
But what looks like an environmentally conscious proposal by Dawn Mining, is, in part, an attempt to bargain with an almost worthless chip. The Department of Energy already awarded clean-up contracts to dispose of uranium mill tailings from other Superfund sites, and the likelihood of revenue from11E2 importation for the company is slim at best, officials say. But, Robertson says that the new amendments do have substantial environmental advantages over the status quo.
The current method of handling the seepage of contaminated water from the Midnight Mine pits is to pump excess water back into pit number 3. The highly acidic water, which contains radioactive material leached from the mine tailings, is transported to the mill site 15 miles away, processed and then pumped into a holding pond to evaporate. The leftover filter cake, is deposited in TDA4.
The down side is that radioactive water is transported daily through the reservation from the mine to the mill. Processing entails the use of 6000 to 9000 gallons of sulphuric acid and lime solution a day, which is discharged as well. Approximately 60 tanker truckloads of chemicals a year are transported along the roads bordering the reservation and through Ford, presenting almost as noxious a potential toxic spill scenario as the importation of 11E2 material.
The proposed new method of disposal would eliminate processing. Contaminated water from the Midnight Mine, which averages 30 curies radioactivity as opposed to the 3000 curies permitted in the original license agreement, would be discharged directly in the disposal area. Upon completion, the mill and all tailing disposal areas would be closed, clean fill would be brought in and the land reclaimed. Completion under the new proposal is estimated to be sometime around the year 2012.
"I don't think the tribe disputes the potential that direct disposal is, perhaps, better from a human health and ecological standpoint than importing 40 million cubic feet of 11E2 material," says Shannon Work, tribal attorney. "The tribe, nonetheless has always taken the position that it has a high preference for the use of clean fill - period. It doesn't make sense to the tribe to put anything more into a site that already is causing contamination of groundwater.
"We need to feel comfortable that that is going to be adequately addressed in the context of looking at the Spokane Tribe of Indians as a subsistence-based population and a population whose religion is tied into the waters and the fish and other elements of riverine systems that are impacted by Dawn's facility."
Dawn Mining and, so far, the Department of Health, say the new proposal is a radical improvement and goes a long way in answering the tribe's concerns.
"There's already 58 million cubic feet of tailings out there," says Robertson. "If you look at that amount of uranium out there, it's already a lot more than what we would receive in the next five years on this process. We've gotten a letter from the DOE on the analysis (of the contaminated material from the mine pits) and they say it is neither a dangerous nor hazardous waste. It is like material to what's already in there.
"By putting it straight into the tailings pond as a solid filter cake - which we have determined (in) a series of leach tests to be less mobile than the tailings that we're pumping out there now - it's more environmentally friendly, if you want to say it that way," says Dawn Mining general manager Bob Nelson.
"There is a very, very minute amount of this sludge that is going to go into TDA4. Some people think we're going to fill the pond with that. But it's just going to be a very small amount. ... maybe one or two percent of the total amount.
"There's going to be tons and tons of clean fill going into the facility."
Nelson says that the filter cake will be placed at the bottom of the disposal area and topped with clean fill, then capped. The company and the DOH estimate the new disposal methods could speed up the closure of the mill from 2019 to 2012.
There is no current estimate on when the Midnight Mine will be ready for reclamation.
"It's up to the EPA now," says Nelson. "It's not our business anymore. They've made that very clear. The fate of the mine is out of our hands."