Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Rob Manning | July 28, 2011 | Portland, OR
Northwest tribal leaders say they're seeing climate change affect food sources that are vital to their culture.
"All we can do is try to help these plants and animals adapt. If we don't, the future of the tribes' First Foods could be at stake" says Paul Lumley of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
He’s worried about the future. Rob Manning reports on how climate change is affecting tribal culture.
Gerald Lewis is a member of the Yakama Tribal Council. He says a traditional story explains how native people are tied to salmon.
"The Creator in turn spoke to them, that 'man was coming.' And so, in this way, salmon stepped up and said 'I will provide for the people.' And so, the foods followed in order – the animals, the deer, the roots, and the berries."
Lewis and other tribal leaders say they're noticing changes in these sacred First Foods. He says almon are changing in two ways.
"We have seen that throughout these past few years, especially, that our salmon runs are coming in later. The size of the fish, also – they seem to be smaller."
Gerald Lewis says the late arrival is disrupting the traditional timing of important cultural events.
"A lot of our longhouses, they depend on a certain time of the year to have our First Foods ceremony, our salmon ceremony, our welcoming back of the salmon. And the run timing of it is going back a little farther, so that each and every longhouse church have to run accordingly to the fish runs, so our ceremonies are moved back."
Lewis says he's also hearing from tribal women that the roots they harvest for ceremonies are changing, too.
"They are very small, and their numbers are dwindling, as well. So, it affects a lot of our roots today, this climate change."
Tribal leaders worry that climate change might have a more powerful impact on plants than on salmon.
"A fish can move around. Plants can't," Paul Lumley says. "If we can do a good job at forecasting what climate change might be, we might have to step in and help the plants move. And make sure we have these roots and berries in perpetuity."
Lumley says tribes are working with scientists to study climate effects on plants.
All kinds of scientists are watching the complex environmental effects on salmon.
Government scientists agree that salmon returning from the ocean appear to be smaller than in the past. Hatcheries and fishing practices could be part of the reason. But Oregon Fish and Wildlife biologist, Kathryn Kostow says the way climate change is affecting the ocean could be responsible, too.
"It may be a change in ocean productivity, and it may be associated with climate change, but we still have a lot of work to do to decide that's true."
Scientists confirm that the spring Chinook runs have been late, recently. That's culturally a very significant run for the tribes. Scientists say a climate-affected ocean could be partly responsible, but the power and temperature of the spring Columbia might be more important.
Salmon are also economically important to the tribes. And leaders are working to maintain those benefits by keeping the price for salmon high.
Tribal fishermen, meantime, want to make the most of the shortened spring salmon runs. Yakama council member, Gerald Lewis, says fishermen want to get out on the water, even when the river is dangerously rough.
"You add the wind to that, and there becomes very big swells out there, and currents are very, very bad. And so the safety of our fishermen is a very big concern."
Lewis says he wants fishermen wearing lifejackets.
And the tribes asked the Coast Guard to demonstrate a river rescue, so that fishermen know what happens, if the rough water knocks them overboard.
Decades ago, tribal members fished off of scaffolds. Since the dams were built, they moved to boats.
Fish commission director, Paul Lumley: "We thought we were going to lose our First Foods when these dams were built and we were very lucky. We have a lot of fish coming back now. But with climate change, we might lose the fish because they are so adaptable, they stray. And if the climate is better for the fish up north, as the world warms up, the fish might decide to go live somewhere else."
Biologists don't expect salmon to head north. They say it's more likely they'd just slowly disappear from the Columbia. And the way climate change is going, that could put the tribes' precious spring Chinook, at the greatest risk.
© 2011 OPB
Monday, June 6, 2011
June 6, 2011
Chico Corral blames uranium industry for failing health
But as others before him have learned, compensation is elusive
Charlotte Corral breaks down in tears while speaking about her husband, Chico, in their home on the Spokane Reservation. Sandra Belvail, a volunteer advocate who is helping Chico make a radiation compensation claim, offers comfort.
Chico Corral couldn’t get away from the dust. After the daily blasting, yellow-brown grit hung in the air at the Midnite Mine, an open-pit uranium mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation where Corral worked without a mask or respirator. Later, he breathed in dust during the years he worked at a uranium mill.
“We sucked all that into our lungs,” he said.
His family couldn’t escape the dust, either. It coated his work boots and coveralls. His daughter, Rachael Corral Henry, remembers running to meet her dad when he came home from work. “It was like he’d been in a sandstorm,” she recalled.
In his living room, in the blue recliner where he spends most of his days, Corral pauses to cough, spitting phlegm into an empty milk carton.
Now 79, Corral’s lungs show signs of scarring. Minor exertion leaves him short of breath. He believes his lung problems resulted from the two decades he spent in the uranium industry.
For the past three years, Corral has tried to get compensation through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA. The federal legislation allows former uranium workers to collect up to $100,000 for health problems that arose from their work.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, the United States conducted nearly 200 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. Domestically mined and milled uranium was essential for the effort.
The act covers uranium miners, millers and ore truck drivers who worked in the industry through 1971. People who lived downwind of Nevada’s atomic test site are also covered.
In a 2009 letter, the U.S. Department of Labor acknowledged that Corral had been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but it said he didn’t provide evidence that linked the disease to his work history.
Efforts to document Corral’s work history and exposure levels have turned into endless rounds of paperwork for him and volunteer advocate Sandra Belvail. They’ve had to track down decades-old payroll records and medical reports.
Corral was never seen by a doctor specializing in industrial exposure, which makes his claim more difficult, said Belvail, a retired nurse practitioner.
As she’s worked on Corral’s claim, she’s been shuffled among 15 employees at the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Justice, which administer the program. When they tried to reschedule a hearing this spring, Corral received a letter telling him to call a nonworking phone number.
Former co-workers who started the claims process gave up.
“If they drag this process out, these guys will be gone,” Belvail said.
Several hundred former uranium workers on the Spokane Reservation could be eligible for compensation. Nontribal members, as well as Spokane Indians, worked in the industry. Corral isn’t enrolled in the tribe, though his late wife was.
A federal grant could help former tribal uranium workers navigate the complicated process. The Spokane Tribe of Indians recently applied for a $900,000, three-year grant from the Department of Health and Human Services.
If the grant is awarded, the tribe would hire caseworkers to help former uranium workers assemble their RECA applications, said Deb Abrahamson, executive director of the SHAWL Society, a nonprofit activist group that was a co-applicant on the grant along with Indian Health Services.
Former uranium workers also would get screening for occupation-related illnesses.
The Navajo Nation has used a similar approach to help its members secure more than $450 million in compensation. Eight full-time employees at the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers help people with the paperwork, said Lawrence Martinez, program director.
As his own medical condition deteriorates, Corral worries about his family’s health. He fears that by carrying dust home on his clothes, he also exposed them to radiation and heavy metals.
His wife, Eveleen, died of leukemia. One of Corral’s daughters also has the disease. During a recent checkup, Corral’s 39-year-old son, Gabriel, was told that he had spots on his lungs.
“They know what’s true,” Corral says of the federal government.
‘That dust was everywhere’
Corral grew up near Los Angeles and spent part of his military years at Fairchild Air Force Base. After his discharge, he married Eveleen. They raised seven children on the Spokane Indian Reservation, where natural beauty is abundant but jobs are scarce. Corral was glad to hire on at the Midnite Mine. “He always said, ‘Thank the Lord that I can work another day,’ ” recalled Gabriel Corral, Corral’s youngest son.
Initially, Corral worked as a truck driver for contractors that transported ore. Later, he worked as a handyman at the Midnite Mine and as a “powder monkey,” the employee who filled drill holes with explosives.
He was also a prober. When the dust cleared after explosives detonated, Corral went out with a Geiger counter to measure ore grades.
As a young man, Corral occasionally smoked a cigar or a pipe. But he believes his lung disease was caused by dust from uranium ore. When Corral worked in the open pit mine, he had regular bouts of pneumonia.
When Dawn Mining Co. opened a uranium processing plant near Ford, Wash., Corral took a job there.
Financially, those were good years. In the early 1980s, Corral earned nearly $21,000 annually – the equivalent of about $52,000 today.
Eveleen Corral waged housekeeping battles against the dust that came with the paychecks. Her husband hung up his work clothes in the entryway. For fun, Gabriel Corral punched his dad’s coat to see the dust explode from it.
“All that I remember is yellow, yellow, yellow,” said Corral’s daughter, Rachael. “That dust was everywhere.”
Eveleen Corral was fastidious about changing the bedsheets, her daughter said. But piles of dust still accumulated on the floor under her husband’s side of the mattress.
Eveleen Corral died at 54. At the time, no one in her family questioned if her leukemia was related to uranium exposure.
Dawn Mining’s management had repeatedly told employees that working with uranium ore carried little risk, Chico Corral said.
The year her mother died, Rachael Corral Henry was diagnosed with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, both autoimmune diseases. One of her sisters has leukemia.
“I believe it was part of what happened,” Rachael Corral Henry said.
Claim takes skills of Nancy Drew
Three years ago, the Department of Justice held a meeting for former uranium workers on the Spokane Reservation. Corral learned he could submit a 22-page RECA claim for compensation.
Corral’s first claim application was turned down, with the rejection letter acknowledging his lung disease but saying his claim didn’t substantiate his work history. That’s when Belvail got involved.
Belvail retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Spokane, where Corral was one of her patients. She volunteers her time to help veterans with government claims. Corral’s is the most difficult she’s worked on.
“I’m glad that I read a lot of Nancy Drew detective stories when I was a kid,” Belvail said, “because that’s what this is all about.”
First, she had to prove that Corral was exposed to radiation and heavy metals. Copies of his Social Security records weren’t good enough. They outlined the years Corral worked for Dawn Mining, which operated both the Midnite Mine and the ore processing plant. But they didn’t have job descriptions.
To prove that Corral’s work duties exposed him to chemicals and radiation, Belvail pored over pay ledgers at Dawn Mining’s office in Ford. Based on what she uncovered, Bob Nelson, a Dawn manager at the closed mill, signed an affidavit, confirming Corral’s job history.
Because Corral received most of his health care through a local clinic, linking his health history to his work has been difficult. “They didn’t make definitive statements that his illness was related to occupation,” Belvail said.
Corral has diabetes and heart and kidney disease in addition to lung problems, which further complicates his claim.
RECA administrators rejected Corral’s claim for compensation for kidney disease, even though kidney disease can be linked to uranium. “They said it’s from my diabetes,” Corral said.
Diabetes frequently leads to kidney and heart problems, Belvail acknowledged. And Corral’s heart problems probably contribute to his shortness of breath, she said.
Belvail wants Corral to be seen by an occupational health specialist before he has a final hearing on his claim.
Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, said privacy laws bar the agency from commenting on individual cases. But Miller said the program has paid out $16 million for 247 claims in Washington state since 1992, an average of $65,000 a claim. Two of the claims were from the Spokane Reservation, he said.
Corral believes time is running out
While Corral has waited for a resolution, his health has deteriorated.
Walking down a flight of stairs leaves him short of breath. He can’t lift more than 5 pounds or stand for more than a few minutes. He’s given up fishing and hunting. Every four hours, he uses an inhaler to expand his bronchial tubes.
There’s no self-pity in Corral, a genial man. But Charlotte, whom he married after Eveleen’s death, cries on his behalf.
“It’s depressing,” she said. “There are so many things he can no longer do.”
Corral was an active man in his late 60s when they met. Her parents – members of Canada’s Okanagan Nation Alliance – came for traditional winter dances in the longhouse Corral had built next to his home. One year, Charlotte came, too.
The attraction was instant. When Corral proposed on their first date, Charlotte accepted. The next day, he asked her parents about her bride price. They suggested two plugs of chewing tobacco. It was a small sum for their daughter, they explained, but they knew Corral was a good man who would take care of her.
Charlotte, who’s in her 60s, quickly became the caretaker. While she worries about his health, Corral worries about the burden his illnesses place on her. In addition to taking care of him, Charlotte works full time as a housekeeper at Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights. She earns $9 an hour, money quickly consumed by medical bills.
She works a swing shift, returning home after midnight. During the 120-mile round-trip commute, she’s hit a deer in the dark and skidded on ice into a ditch.
“I love you,” she tells him, leaning over the recliner to trade goodbye kisses before she leaves for work. The braid that falls down Charlotte’s back is still glossy and dark, but her face is tired and lined.
If Corral’s claim is successful, the couple plan to pay off medical bills and set aside money for future needs.
Corral believes his time is running out. “My lungs are getting worse. I can feel it.”
Three miles from Corral’s house, spring winds stir dust at the closed mill site.
“You can see that stuff,” he said. “It’s like fog coming off the old tailings pond.”
June 5, 2011
Timeline: Uranium mining and Midnite Mine
1946: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission is created. The commission offers contracts at generous prices to spur development of a domestic uranium industry.
1954: Brothers Jim and John LeBret discover uranium on the Spokane Reservation. They and their partners form Midnite Mines Inc.
1955: Newmont Mining Corp. joins with Midnite Mines to develop the deposit. Dawn Mining Co. is formed. Ownership is 51 percent Newmont and 49 percent Midnite Mines.
1955 to 1965: Dawn Mining Co. sells uranium to the Atomic Energy Commission, the only buyer at the time.
1958 to 1965: Dawn provides an average of $1 million a year in dividends to Newmont.
1969: After a four-year shut down, Midnite Mine reopens to sell uranium for nuclear power production.
1981: Operations cease at the Midnite Mine.
1988: One of the mine’s open pits has hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated water. Federal government raises concerns about water overtopping the pit.
1991: Dawn ordered to operate a water treatment plant to prevent Pit No. 3 from overflowing.
1997: Federal government starts negotiations with Dawn and Newmont for study and cleanup of the site in compliance with environmental laws.
1999: Spokane Tribe sues to prevent storage of radioactive wastes from other sites at the Midnite Mine.
1999: Midnite Mine proposed for Superfund listing.
2005: Federal government sues Newmont and Dawn for cleanup costs at the site.
2008: U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush rules that the U.S. government, Dawn and Newmont are each responsible for one-third of the Midnite Mine’s cleanup costs.SOURCE: Staff research, federal court documents
June 5, 2011
Exposure risk limits food hunt
Many members of the Spokane Tribe heed the ATSDR warnings and do not dig roots, like this bitterroot, in the Blue Creek drainage. Instead they collect traditional foods in other locations including public and private land outside of the reservation. “We used to go to rockypoint (a root digging spot located between Midnite and Sherwood mines) but we have stopped doing all gatherings around Blue Creek,” said Deb Abrahamson.
White camas facts
White camas, known by the scientific name of Lomatium canbyi, is a member of the parsley family. Sometimes known as biscuit root or desert parsley, it’s different from brown camas, a blue- flowering plant that’s a member of the lily family.
After a prayer evoking “the Grandfather’s” blessing, four generations of the Spokane Tribe set off across a sagebrush-dotted pasture in search of white camas roots.
Elders wore woven baskets strapped to their sides. Teenagers moved in packs. Parents accompanied elementary school-age students who were out of school for the occasion.
“Found one! Found one!” crowed 7-year-old Gunner White, dancing with excitement near a short stalk with brown seed heads.
His older sister handed him the root digger, a long metal spike with a curved end. Gunner dug up a root the size of a small radish. It was crisp, like a turnip, with an aftertaste faintly reminiscent of solvents.
“Some people compare it to the smell of kerosene,” said Pat Moses, a tribal elder who attended the community root dig.
White camas roots are peeled, strung in chains and air-dried for winter consumption. The starchy roots are one of the traditional foods eaten by the Spokane Tribe.
Each May, community members gather for the annual root dig. It’s one example of why cleanup of uranium waste is so important on the Spokane Reservation, said Deb Abrahamson, executive director of the SHAWL Society, an environmental activist group there.
Gathering foods eaten by their ancestors is important to tribal members, she said. Yet eating native plants, wild game and fish can expose people to heavy metals and radiation.
The annual root dig takes place on U.S. Bureau of Land Management grazing land near Harrington, Wash. Areas around the defunct Midnite uranium mine are no longer used for harvesting food.
Abrahamson’s family has stopped gathering chokecherries in the Blue Creek drainage, which is downstream from the mine. It isn’t safe to eat plants from the drainage, according to a 2009 public health assessment by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The study cited polluted ground and surface water, which carries heavy metals and radioactive materials from the mine into the Blue Creek drainage. The creek flows for 3 1/2 miles before emptying into the Spokane River.
As a result of the warning, other members of the tribe no longer gather herbs for medicinal teas along Blue Creek. Eating fish from the creek isn’t safe either. Consuming meat from deer or elk that graze in the drainage may pose health risks as well, said the study, which recommended further testing of the meat.
Marsha Wynecoop has organized the annual community root gathering for 18 years. The harvest of white camas marks the beginning of gathering season, which includes dozens of edible wild plants.
The tribe’s members have an intricate relationship with the land, said Randy Abrahamson, a former uranium worker who’s a distant cousin of Deb Abrahamson. Preserving tribal culture includes preserving the ability to harvest traditional foods.“We want answers,” he said. “Are the creeks full of contamination? Are the berries safe to eat? We’re hunters and fishermen and gatherers.”