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New poisons bury old ones.

Members of the Spokane Indian Tribe are joining environmental activists throughout Washington state in protest of a questionable plan for cleaning up two radioactive waste sites northwest of Spokane. It would allow the Dawn Mining Company to import some thirty-five million cubic feet of radioactive waste into an area already permanently altered from uranium projects.

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Debbie Abrahamson, a member of the Spokane Tribe, says that Dawn Mining's proposal takes a deplorable situation and makes it worse. "It's just incredible how much that company has gotten away with and continues to get away with," says Abrahamson. "It's been far too easy for them to come in, strip away what they needed, leave the land completely annihilated, and make their own rules about how to clean up the mess."

"This whole scenario is a lot like a David Lynch movie," adds Cathie Currie of the Washington Wilderness Coalition. "If you look too closely, you see that everything's just coated with slime."

Newmont Mining, the largest producer of gold in North America, took up uranium mining on Spokane land during the 1950s. The Cold War was at its peak, environmental regulations were practically nonexistent, and the Spokane tribe was poor enough to try almost anything. Newmont established the Midnite uranium mine on tribal land and set up the Dawn Mining Company mill site eighteen miles away. For three decades, Dawn extracted earth from a mine on tribal land, transported it to the mill, and processed it into materials useful for the construction of nuclear bombs. A clause in the lease between the tribe and Dawn Mining exempted the company from all liability for environmental damage.

Now that the uranium boom years have passed, tribal members and rural residents are left with two large pits of radioactive waste: one a defunct mine, the other a former mill. Although both disasters were part of the same uranium project and were funded by the same mining giant, the fact that the mine is on Indian land and the mill is not makes the cleanup process even more difficult than usual. The state is responsible for the mill, and federal agencies are responsible for the mine.

The state's proposal came first: fill the pit at the mill with uncontaminated dirt, and close the site. Dawn Mining pleaded poverty. The cost of cleaning the two sites was estimated at $40 million. The company insisted on a funding mechanism: the commercial import of low-level, radioactive waste from various toxic sites across the country. The state bought it.

Jim Kneeland, a spokesman for Dawn Mining, calls the plan "the safest, best common-sense option that's out there." Health department officials downplay the danger of the material that would be brought in. Leo Wainhouse of the Division of Radiation Detection says, "There's so much stuff out there that's far more hazardous ... I honestly don't see why people are making such a big deal out of this."

Abrahamson does. She links weak health and environmental regulations to the inordinately high rate of cancer on the reservation. "A lot of our people worked out at that mine when it was open," she charges, "and they were often put in the most hazardous positions, unknowingly."

Abrahamson would like to see more awareness on the reservation of the history of the mines. "It's really sad to see oppression pushing us to such a desperate level where we'll take what we can get," she says, "even if it's table scraps--even if it's contaminated table scraps. If we don't take a stand soon, we'll have nothing left but a barren pile of rocks." For more information, contact Cathie Currie, Washington Wilderness Coalition, (206) 633-1992.
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Title Annotation:On The Line; Dawn Mining Co. uranium mill cleanup, Spokane Indian Reservation, WA
Author:Jacklet, Ben
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Mar 1, 1996
Words:608
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