Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cleanup OK'd for uranium mine on tribal land

October 1, 2011

The federal government has reached an agreement with one of the world's largest mining companies on a $193 million cleanup of a defunct uranium mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

The Spokesman-Review

SPOKANE — The federal government has reached an agreement with one of the world's largest mining companies on a $193 million cleanup of a defunct uranium mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Newmont Mining Co. and its subsidiary, Dawn Mining, will pay for the majority of the restoration costs at the Midnite Mine. The U.S. Department of the Interior will contribute $42 million to future cleanup activities for failing to fulfill federal trust responsibilities to the Spokane Tribe through proper oversight of the open-pit mine.

The Midnite Mine opened in the 1950s to produce uranium for the U.S.-Soviet arms race. Although it closed 30 years ago, members of the tribe remain concerned about the Midnite Mine's ongoing effect on their health and the environment. About 33 million tons of radioactive waste rock and ore remain at the 350-acre site above the Spokane River.

"Today signals a huge milestone in addressing what really is a blight on the landscape in the heart of the Spokane Reservation — not just from a physical standpoint, but from the environmental consequences of the operations there," said Dan Opalski, the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund director in Seattle.

The proposed consent decree was filed in U.S. District Court on Friday. It's subject to a 30-day public-comment period. If the court approves the decree, the agreement would end years of litigation and kick off two to three years of design work for the Midnite Mine's cleanup. The restoration work itself would require about seven years of construction activity.

"To this day, we don't know all the negative impacts of what that mine did to the land, the animals and the people," Rudy Peone, a tribal council member, said in an interview last spring.

In court documents, the Spokane Tribe has emphasized the land is part of its traditional homeland. The Blue Creek drainage where the mine is located was once used for hunting, fishing and gathering traditional foods, including roots and berries. But two years ago, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry cautioned tribal members against eating wild game, fish or plants gathered from the drainage, which is a tributary to the Spokane River. The foods could be contaminated with heavy metals or radiation, the agency's report said.

The Spokane Tribe's offices were closed on Friday, and officials could not be reached for comment on the cleanup agreement. An official for Dawn Mining Co. also couldn't be reached.

The Midnite Mine dates to the Cold War era. In 1954, two members of the Spokane Tribe discovered uranium on the reservation. The federal government was offering lucrative contracts at the time to spur domestic uranium production.

Many members of the Spokane Tribe worked at the mine and a mill site in Ford, Stevens County. Mining ceased at the site in 1981, when uranium prices collapsed.

The mine cleanup will include filling two deep, open pits with waste rock and providing a cover that will prevent radon gas from escaping, said Elly Hale, an EPA project manager. The caps also will prevent rain and melted snow from filtering through the radioactive waste rock, reducing the water treatment needed at the site, she said.

Another focus of the cleanup will be lowering the volume of groundwater that flows through contaminated material and eventually ends up in the Spokane River, Hale said. However, some level of perpetual water treatment will be required at the mine, she said.

At the end of the cleanup, an 8-foot fence around the Midnite Mine site will be taken down. Hale said radiation exposure from being on the site should be no different from low, natural background levels found elsewhere on the reservation.

If the cleanup work exceeds the $193 million estimate, Newmont and Dawn will be required to pay the additional costs. The companies are required to post $151 million in performance bonds to ensure the cleanup would continue even if they defaulted on the work.

Deb Abrahamson, founder of the SHAWL Society, is a tribal activist who has spent years advocating for the Midnite Mine cleanup. Securing money for the cleanup is a major milestone, she said recently: "The company is owning their mess."

Ensuring the work is done properly, in a way that protects the cleanup workers' health and creates a site that's safe for people and wildlife, is the next priority, she said. Many of the tribal members who worked at the Midnite Mine and mill site in its early years didn't have proper safety equipment or training, which exposed them to heavy metals and radiation, she said.

With unemployment at 55 percent for tribal members living on the reservation, people are eager for the cleanup jobs. This time around, workers should know the risks and how to protect themselves, she said.

"How the cleanup will occur is important," Abrahamson said. Or, "we're going to have another generation facing occupational exposure to toxins."

Progress made toward cleaning up uranium mine

Progress made toward cleaning up uranium mine

Seattle Times - Nov 6, 2011

The Spokane Tribe of Indians has recently won big victories in its long fight against uranium contamination, including a deal reached this fall between the federal government and mining companies to clean up the long-closed Midnite Mine on the reservation.


SPOKANE, Wash. —

The Spokane Tribe of Indians has recently won big victories in its long fight against uranium contamination, including a deal reached this fall between the federal government and mining companies to clean up the long-closed Midnite Mine on the reservation.

In addition, tribal members in September became eligible to receive federal compensation if they became sick while working at the mine.

"It is good news the mining company was finally forced to take responsibility for the mess they've left in poisoning our land and people," said tribal member Deb Abrahamson, founder of the SHAWL Society, which for a decade advocated to clean the mine site and compensate workers who developed cancer and other illnesses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a settlement with Newmont USA Limited and its subsidiary, Dawn Mining Co., to spend $193 million to clean up the 350-acre Superfund site where the uranium mine operated.

While Newmont will pay most of the costs, the U.S. Department of the Interior will contribute $42 million for failing to fulfill federal trust responsibilities to the Spokane Tribe through proper oversight of the open-pit mine.

In a statement, Newmont said it is "committed to ensuring a responsible cleanup that is protective of human health and the environment," and that "the remedy in the consent decree will create employment opportunities within the local community," including the Spokane Tribe of Indians.

"We're happy to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Jamie SiJohn, a spokeswoman for the tribe, whose reservation is just northwest of Spokane.

The Midnite Mine operated from 1954 to 1981, providing a key ingredient for nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War. Up to 500 people worked at a time at the mine, blasting nearly 3 million tons of uranium ore out of the hillsides.

Among the cleanup actions over the next decade will be draining water from two open pits, which are up to 500 feet deep. Also, 33 million tons of radioactive waste rock scattered around the mine site will be moved into the pits, which will then be covered to keep surface water out. Ongoing maintenance will include removal of water that enters the pits.

"The cleanup will bring important environmental protections to residents of the Spokane Indian Reservation, including the control of radioactive mine waste," said Ignacia S. Moreno, an assistant attorney general with the U.S. Department of Justice, in a press release.

Meanwhile, a recently completed epidemiology study of the 2,700-member tribe conducted by the state Department of Health and the Northwest Indian Health Board concluded there were high rates of cancer among tribal members who worked at the mine. That qualified them for federal compensation of between $50,000 and $100,000 per person, Abrahamson said.

It's not clear how many tribal members will ultimately get compensation, as many miners have died and some are declining to file for payments, she said.

The SHAWL Society's task now is to set up a clinic to help people become eligible for compensation, she said. They need to be medically screened and then fill out applications, she said.

The complicated process has been a barrier to compensation for members of some tribes, and Abrahamson is trying to set up a team of attorneys to help Spokanes get qualified.

"That's how the Navajos met success, they had attorneys," she said.

The majority of the workers at the mine were Spokanes or members of other nearby tribes, Abrahamson said.

Women of the tribe have contracted cancer from cleaning the clothes of the men who worked in the mines, Abrahamson said.

Many members of Abrahamson's own family became sick.

"It has really varied on how radiation impacted people," she said. "Some died right after they worked out there in the 1970s. Others have gone 20 to 30 years and then cancer emerges."

Former miners have also suffered from renal failure, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, she said.

"I'm really hoping that former workers can benefit and that justice, or at least a piece of justice, can happen for them," Abrahamson said.

Another issue is that the federal government compensates workers who labored at uranium mines only through 1971, when it stopped buying uranium for nuclear weapons, she said. The Midnite Mine operated until 1981, selling uranium to commercial nuclear power plant customers. Abrahamson wants to get compensation for people who worked there between 1971 and 1981.

It's been known for some time that the mine site posed serious health risks.

Dawn Mining has long collected and treated water from the site before pumping it into Blue Creek, a tributary of the Spokane River. The treatment, ordered by the federal government, removed radioactive materials and heavy metals.

The federal government also recommends spending no more than one hour a day at the mine site to limit exposure to radiation and radon gas. People shouldn't eat berries or plants gathered from the Blue Creek drainage, where the mine is located, or fish from the creek, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Meat from deer and elk that forage in the drainage could also pose health risks from heavy metals and radiation, the agency has said.

Department of Justice Press Release - Settlement Agreement

Department of Justice
Office of Public Affairs

Friday, September 30, 2011

Cleanup Agreement Reached at Former Uranium Mine on Spokane Indian Reservation in Northeastern Washington

WASHINGTON – A settlement agreement has been reached for the cleanup of the Midnite Mine Superfund Site, located on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Northeastern Washington, the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today. The 350 acre site, which is centered around a former open pit uranium mine, poses a potential threat to people’s health and the environment due to the presence of heavy metals and elevated levels of radioactivity.

Under the agreement, filed today with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington in Spokane, Wash., Newmont USA Limited, and Dawn Mining Company, LLC will design, construct and implement the cleanup plan for the site that EPA selected in 2006 and also will reimburse EPA’s costs for overseeing the work. Cleanup at the site is expected to cost $193 million. EPA also will be reimbursed for approximately $25 million in costs already incurred. The United States, on behalf of the Department of the Interior, will contribute approximately $54 million toward past and future cleanup activities. Finally, the mining companies have agreed to secure funding that will be available should EPA have to take over the work.

“Under today’s agreement, the mining companies will perform the cleanup of the Midnite Mine. The cleanup will bring important environmental protections to residents of the Spokane Indian Reservation, including the control of radioactive mine waste and the protection of nearby waters from acid mine drainage,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. “This settlement means that the long-sought cleanup will be implemented, and gives the Spokane Tribe a role in working with EPA to ensure that the cleanup protects human health and the environment on the Reservation.”

“EPA is committed to ensuring the cleanup of environmental contamination at former mine sites,” said Cynthia Giles, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today’s settlement will ensure that sufficient funds are available to complete the cleanup of the Midnite Mine site, strengthening environmental protection in Indian Country and protecting the families living on the Spokane Indian Reservation.”

The Midnite Mine operated from 1954 to 1964, and again from 1969 to 1981. As a result of the mining operations, approximately 350 acres of land were disturbed, and numerous waste rock piles and two open mine pits are still present at the site.

According to Dennis McLerran, EPA Regional Administrator in Seattle, today’s agreement means the long-anticipated cleanup work can move forward.

Today’s settlement is great news for the environment and finally gives the Spokane Tribe some certainty,” said Regional Administrator McLerran. “The Tribe has been living with this legacy for too long. EPA is eager to get moving on the cleanup and make the area safe for the families who live and work in the area.”

Actions at the site will include installing a drainage layer and sumps in the two pits left open after mining, consolidating existing waste rock in the pits, and covering the pits to keep surface water out. Ongoing maintenance will include removal and treatment of water that enters from the pit walls.

Officials expect the project’s design phase to last approximately three years, with an additional five to seven years needed to finish construction. Managing contaminated water at the site will continue to be a high priority during construction planning.

EPA will oversee the work to ensure that it follows the cleanup plan and complies with the agreement signed by the parties. The Spokane Tribe, though not a party to the agreement, will support EPA in overseeing the work.

The public now has 30 days to comment on the Consent Decree prior to entry in federal court. The consent decree will be available at .

More information on the settlement agreement: .

Midnite Mine Video by Jeff Ferguson

Midnite Mine Community Involvement Meeting - Feb 2 , 2012 - Wellpinit Longhouse


§ To review the timelines for the clean-up process

§ To identify opportunities for community engagement during clean-up design phase

§ To develop successful models and protocols for community involvement

§ To update the Community Involvement Plan


10:00 – 10:45 Invocation

Welcome & agenda review

Introductions & share expectations for the session

10:45 – 11:20 USEPA presentation on clean up process

§ Background and Project Timeline on work completed to-date

§ Community Involvement Timeline, what to expect next

11:20 – 12:15 Group brainstorm on key issues

§ Begin by offering reflections on what facilitator heard in the interviews

§ Identify overarching issues

12:15 – 1:00 LUNCH – Lunch is gratuitous and will be catered and served on-site by a local tribal member.

1:00 –2:15 Group discussion on Community Involvement

§ What are some possible improvements?

§ What are some options for implementation?

2:15 – 2:30 BREAK

2:30 – 3:15 Group discussion on Community Involvement – Cont’d

§ Develop successful model and protocol

§ Update Community Involvement Plan

§ Prioritize, as needed or necessary

3:15 – 4:00 Closing and final thoughts

Summary and next steps


State Seeks Stricter Water Quality Standards

November 5, 2011 - Seattle Times

Washington waters are supposed to be clean enough to protect people who eat fish from rivers, streams and lakes, but the state standard assumes people can safely eat less than 8 ounces of fish a month. State environmental regulators think that amount is too low.

The Associated Press

Randy Kinley, a Lummi tribal member, harvests salmon, clams and oysters in Northwest Washington, and eats what he catches about three or four times a week.

Washington waters are supposed to be clean enough to protect people who eat fish from rivers, streams and lakes, but the state standard assumes people can safely eat less than 8 ounces of fish a month.

State environmental regulators think that amount is too low. Many Washington residents likely eat more than the current rate of 6.5 grams a day (0.23 ounces), they say, so they're recommending a fish-consumption rate that would protect people who eat at least 24 times that amount.

How much fish Washington residents consume is important because it helps drive water-quality standards and pollution control. Toxic pollutants such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can accumulate in the flesh of fish and shellfish, so people who frequently eat it can take in harmful toxins.

A higher fish-consumption rate means fewer toxic pollutants would be allowed in state waters — and likely tougher restrictions for polluters.

"Ensuring that the state's environmental standards accurately reflect our citizens' exposure is the next step needed to reduce toxics in our environment and protect public health for Washington's fish and shellfish consumers," Department of Ecology's director Ted Sturdevant said last month.

Washington's current fish rate was developed in the mid-1980s and doesn't reflect that residents likely eat much more, officials said.

Oregon recently adopted one of the nation's toughest water-quality standards, after determining Oregonians eat about 175 grams of fish a day, or about 23 8-ounce fish or shellfish meals a month. That rate, approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month, is the highest for a U.S. state.

Washington officials suggest a fish-consumption rate between 157 to 267 grams per day, based on the results of four previous surveys that looked at the fish diet of several tribes and Asian and Pacific Islanders. Ecology is seeking public comment through Dec. 30.

State officials say they want a fish-consumption rate that protects all Washington residents who eat fish, including the general population and individuals who eat a lot of fish, such as Native Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and some recreational fishers.

Many tribes already have much higher fish-consumption rates and water-quality standards that apply to tribal waters. The Spokane Tribe, for example, set its rate at 865 grams a day (30.5 ounces), one of the highest in the nation. The state's standard would apply to nontribal state waters.

Several tribes say the current state rate doesn't reflect the important role that fish and shellfish play in the diet and culture of tribal members.

Charles O'Hara, planning director for the Swinomish Tribe near La Conner, Skagit County, said most tribal ceremonies, funerals or important occasions focus around salmon and other seafood.

"If you look at the current rate of 6 grams, it's pretty ridiculous," he said. "To be setting standards on such an unrealistic number ignores reality." The rate "should account for the people who eat the most," he added.

Tribes, including the Lummi and Swinomish, are doing their own surveys to find out how much fish tribal members eat. The results will help ensure the state's criteria protect the health of tribal members, they say.

Washington officials have closely watched Oregon's process.

"We want to use all the information they gained through their process," said Cheryl Niemi, a water-quality specialist with Ecology. "We're not Oregon, so we'll have different stakeholders. Any new information we get here, that will be thrown in the mix."

The Northwest Pulp & Paper Association is waiting to see what happens in Washington and how it will impact jobs, said Chris McCabe, the group's executive director. "Our main goal is to seek reasonable and cost-effective solution to this issue."

Progress Made Toward Cleaning Up Uranium Mine

The Spokane Tribe of Indians has recently won big victories in its long fight against uranium contamination, including a deal reached this fall between the federal government and mining companies to clean up the long-closed Midnite Mine on the reservation.

Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash. —

The Spokane Tribe of Indians has recently won big victories in its long fight against uranium contamination, including a deal reached this fall between the federal government and mining companies to clean up the long-closed Midnite Mine on the reservation.

In addition, tribal members in September became eligible to receive federal compensation if they became sick while working at the mine.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a settlement with Newmont USA Limited and its subsidiary, Dawn Mining Co., to spend $193 million to clean up the 350-acre Superfund site where the uranium mine operated.

While Newmont will pay most of the costs, the U.S. Department of the Interior will contribute $42 million for failing to fulfill federal trust responsibilities to the Spokane Tribe through proper oversight.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Northwest Tribes See Changes in Sacred 'First' Foods

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

Chico Corral blames uranium industry for failing health

June 6, 2011
Chico Corral blames uranium industry for failing health
But as others before him have learned, compensation is elusive
Becky Kramer
The Spokesman-Review

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.”