Midnite Mine, Spokane Reservation, WA

By: Jennifer Watkins, SFSU, 2017

Midnite Mine is a Superfund site, formerly a uranium mine, located near Wellpinit, WA on the Spokane Reservation. The Spokane knew nothing about the detrimental effects uranium mining has on the environment and human health. The energy injustices at Midnite Mine arose because of the Spokane’s lack of knowledge, the lack of evidence showing causality between their health problems and the mining, and the lack of accountability from Newmont Mining Corporation.

Open uranium pit, similar to Midnite Mine

Midnite Mine quick history:

  • Located in Spokane Indian Reservation of Washington State.
  • The LeBret twin brothers of the Spokane tribe discovered uranium in 1954 and mining continued for approximately 25 years during the Cold War [1]
  • The brothers teamed with Newmont Mining Corporation to form Dawn Mining Company, which had 51% ownership [2]
  • Former source of income for many tribal members who are disproportionately impoverished because of the government [3]
  • Currently close to 40 million tons of radioactive waste at Midnite Mine [4] [5]

Environmental and health impacts from Midnite Mine have been observed since its closure in 1981. There are 20 listed pollutants that have contaminated the environment and has thus been deemed a superfund site [6].

Uranium mining has been linked to [7][8][9][10]

  • Reproductive issues
  • Kidney diseases
  • High blood pressure
  • Lung & bone cancers
  • Birth defects
  • Autoimmune diseases

Cancer deaths amongst the Spokane are higher than average because they didn’t know how important it is to be protected from radiation [11]. But, Newmont Mining Corporation denies the mine affected anyone’s health [12]. These health effects have created a financial burden because treatment can be expensive and lawsuits to cover costs have been dismissed due to lack of causality.

The negative impacts of uranium mining are well documented. But a case study conducted on the Navajo tribe showed a lack of formal education as well as a lack knowledge of radiation exposure and heavy metal pollution played a significant role in why the Spokane chose to willingly work in Midnite Mine [13]. The unemployment rate, which was at 55.6% amongst tribal members in the 2010 census report, was approximately six times the national average [14][15]. When you’re impoverished, the need for money to feed yourself and your family can outweigh the risks involved in a job. So, even if they knew the health risks, that probably would not have been enough to deter them from a good-paying job. This lack of knowledge coupled with their poverty made Midnite Mine a perfect sacrifice zone. These areas are considered a threat to human health, and due to environmental racism they are justified by the “need” for whatever resources are being extracted or chemicals that are being used [16].

Midnite Mine was justified with a “higher purpose” because the United States needed uranium for nuclear weapons and power plants [17]. It also provided well-paying jobs to tribal members who had no other source of income [18]. Uranium mining on Indian reservations was often the only way to earn a living. The sacrifices were hidden easily because stories about the Spokane who worked at Midnite Mine are not widely publicized [19]. Native Americans are a marginalized group that is often forgotten about and their problems are not always well-documented. There’s also the issue that some health problems associated with mining can also be associated with other lifestyles/habits, e.g. emphysema can be caused by working in a mine but smoking is another reason.

The resource curse is certainly applicable to Midnite Mine. The mine workers had no need for the uranium, nor did they attain any wealth from these resources. Considering the high rate of poverty amongst the Spokane tribe, nearly double the national average, it can be inferred that Dawn Milling Company capitalized on the cheap labor and profits they accumulated were never distributed back into the reservation [20][21]. The Spokane were impoverished before the mine opened and after the mine closed. The only difference between the poverty of before and the poverty now is that many tribal members face financial burdens and health problems due to radiation exposure and environmental pollution. They are worse off now as a result. Despite these facts, some tribal members were even open to the idea of reopening the mine or working on the cleanup crew [22][23].

uranium ore
Uranium ore, before being processed
Yellowcake: processed uranium
Lung death
Lung comparison: Healthy vs. emphysema vs. cancer

Midnite Mine is a very long way off from being completely cleaned up. The EPA filed a lawsuit against Newmont Mining Corporation, who fought it for years because they did not feel accountable [24]. Their reasoning was their limited involvement with Midnite [25]. The bulk of the cleanup will occur over the next seven years [26]. However, the Spokane are probably looking at a lot longer for any compensation, if they receive any at all.


[1] Cornwall, W. (2008). Radioactive Remains | The forgotten story of the Northwest’s only uranium mines. Seattle Times. Retrieved from: http://www.seattletimes.com/pacific-nw-magazine/radioactive-remains-the-forgotten-story-of-the-northwests-only-uranium-mines/

[2] Cornwall, 2008

[3] Regan, S. (2014). 5 Ways the Government Keeps Native Americans in Poverty. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/03/13/5-ways-the-government-keeps-native-americans-in-poverty/#24a212f02c27

[4] Cornwall, 2008

[5] Kramer, B. (2011). Spokane tribe members worked gladly in uranium mines. The Spokesman-Review. Retrieved from: http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2011/jun/05/i-watch-them-die-young-and-old/

[6] EPA. (2017). Midnite Mine, Wellpinit, WA. Contaminant List. EPA Superfund Site. Retrieved from: https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.contams&id=1001070

[7] Cornwall, 2008

[8] Jones, B. A. (September 2014). What are the health costs of uranium mining? A case study of uranium miners in Grants, New Mexico. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. Volume 20, 2014 – Issue 4, pages 289-300. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1179/2049396714Y.0000000077

[9] Kramer, 2011

[10] Moore-Nall, A. (2015) The Legacy of Uranium Development on or Near Indian Reservations and Health Implications Rekindling Public Awareness.  Geosciences. Volume 5, Issue 1. Pages 15-29. doi:10.3390/geosciences5010015

[11] Moore-Nall, 2015

[12] Cornwall, 2008

[13] Dawson, S. E. (Winter 1992). Navajo Uranium Workers and the Effects of Occupational Illnesses: A Case Study. Human Organization. Volume 51 – Issue 4, pages 389-397. Retrieved from: http://faculty.washington.edu/stevehar/Dawson.pdf

[14] Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2017). Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. United States Department of Labor. Retrieved from: https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS14000000

[15] Planning & Economic Department. (2013). Spokane Tribe of Indians: A Socioeconomic Profile. Spokane Tribe of Indians. Retrieved from: http://www.spokanetribe.com/userfiles/file/Spokane%20Tribe%20of%20Indians_A%20Socioeconomic%20Profile(2).pdf

[16] Roake, J. (2010). Think Globally, Act Locally: Steve Lerner, ‘Sacrifice Zones,’ at Politics and Prose. Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2010/09/23/steve-lerner-book-sacrifice-zones/?utm_term=.5b5f48ede842

[17] Kramer, 2011

[18] Kramer, 2011

[19] Kramer

[20] Planning & Economic Development, 2013

[21] Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017

[22] Cornwall, 2008

[23] Kramer, 2011

[24] Kramer, 2011

[25] Cornwall, 2008

[26] EPA. (2017). Midnite Mine, Wellpinit, WA. Cleanup Activities. EPA Superfund Site. Retrieved from: https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.cleanup&id=1001070


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