Field trip to the Midnite Mine

My field trip up north last week concluded with a visit to the Midnite Mine where I experienced scorched earth, a glowing waste water pit and simple, yet valuable advice.

This is the second part of my two-part dialogue chronicling my journey north last week with the SHAWL Society and the Spokane Tribe.  Yesterday’s post about my river trip can be found HERE.

For a guy from Butte, Montana, the site of open pit mining isn’t nearly as shocking as I’d imagine it would be to someone with no preconceived understanding or experience.  Which isn’t to say the site of giant gashes in mountainsides, glowing waste water pits, tailing piles of unnaturally colored rocks and sand, and even more unnaturally tree-less plots of forest land isn’t shocking.

That’s where I found myself last week on a guided tour of the Midnite Mine – an inactive open-pit uranium mine located on the Spokane Indian Reservation about eight miles from Wellpinit in Stevens County.  And shockingly close to the Spokane River.

Having not been in operation since the 80’s, and with clean up efforts yet underway despite the EPA’s Record of Decision (ROD) being signed in 2006, the Midnite Mine Superfund Site is very much a barren, quiet shell of its former self.  Which isn’t to say that I’m not likely to have nightmares of the threat this site poses to the Spokane River and the surrounding communities.

Randy Connolly, who is with the Spokane Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources, and is the tribe’s designated Superfund coordinator/director the for the cleanup drove myself, Tim Connor, and Deb Abrahamson, the director of the SHAWL Society around the site last Thursday.

We met at the site’s main entrance which features a blunt sign proclaiming, “Radioactive Area”.   Despite not being able to come up with one good Simpson’s joke we entered.  Randy drove us up and around washed out roads with views of waste rock piles out both sides.  Bright orange and reddish and black rocks gave the feeling of being on another planet, while reclaimed piles with dead grass toupees returned some sense of a familiar Earth-like view.

Randy drove us to one pit, Pit #4, where animal tracks led right to the water’s edge.

Blue Creek empting in to the Spokane River

Pumped water, as well as some contaminated run-off water is treated at on on-site treatment facility with a drainage in to Blue Creek.  That same Blue Creek runs directly in to the Spokane River, often carrying surface water from the mine’s drainage basin that flows to three drainages that empty in to the creek.

Understanding that is one thing, coming to terms with the fact that even if the mine site’s clean up plan is implemented correctly, it will forever rely on pump and treat  to protect Blue Creek.  So the threat to the Spokane River will be forever.  Which is already not ideal given that according to Randy, sulfate levels are currently a concern and are damaging the creek.

Pit 3

After seeing Pit #4, Randy took us higher up the mountain where he stopped and told us a view of Pit #3 was just over the edge.  He said to be careful with footing and not get too close.  How many times have you heard that and felt it  exaggerated?  My point exactly.  However, Randy couldn’t have been any more accurate.  Straight down, some several hundred feet from where my tip toes rested, was a glowing blueish green pit of waste water.  Looking at that, with view of Lake Roosevelt and the Spokane River in the backdrop gave me the impression that this wouldn’t be the last time I venture up north.

I look forward to working more closely with Deb Abrahamson and SHAWL, and the Spokane Tribe to diligently monitor the clean up process and progress, and to address other concerns that might pop up.  And I’ll be sure to keep you all updated here on The Living River.

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