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Ground Breaking

The Spokane Tribe's first female tribal chair seeks to change a toxic legacy

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Randy Connolly, Superfund coordinator for the Spokane Tribe, outside of the Midnite Mine on the Spokane Reservation. - JAKE THOMAS
  • Jake Thomas
  • Randy Connolly, Superfund coordinator for the Spokane Tribe, outside of the Midnite Mine on the Spokane Reservation.

In the Spokane Tribe's administration building in Wellpinit, portraits of past tribal councilmembers hang from the wall. Almost all have one thing in common: They are men.

But one prominently displayed portrait at the end of the hallway stands out. This portrait is of Carol Evans, a soft-spoken 59-year-old, who in July was elected by her other councilmembers. Her ascendance is so novel that tribal members still refer to her as "chairman."

"All the attention is a little bit scary," says Evans, who long worked in the background as the tribe's financial officer.

Evans' election as chair is a milestone for the tribe, but part of her job concerns rectifying the past, when the tribe looked to uranium beneath the ground for economic stability.

Now Evans and others are hoping that a long sought-after cleanup of the Midnite Mine is within reach. But even if cleanup begins soon, the mine will continue to haunt the land and its people.

Randy Connolly, the Spokane Tribe's Superfund coordinator, wheels his Jeep onto a side road outside of Wellpinit. Underneath the layer of gravel and pavement, he says, is a layer of toxic uranium ore that was originally used to line the road. Further up the road is a fence topped with barbed wire, designed to keep out animals as well as people who would wander in and unwittingly steal radioactive rocks.

Beyond the fence is a 350-acre scar consisting of 33 million tons of waste rock and ore, along with pits that run as deep as 500 feet, filled with blue and green wastewater.

"It's always been hazardous," drawls Connolly, gazing at the sight resignedly.

The atomic age came to the Spokane Tribe in the spring of 1954, when brothers John and James LeBret discovered fluorescent uranium minerals in the mountains outside of Wellpinit using an ultraviolet light and a Geiger counter. The discovery led to a partnership between the LaBrets and other members of the tribe, with the Dawn Mining Company acquiring control of the property. The mine opened up shortly afterward, providing uranium for the government and energy industry.

Lois Stratton, a former Spokane city councilwoman and state legislator who grew up on the reservation, remembers the mine being a source of jobs in the economically depressed area. She recalls people fixing up their houses and buying cars, sometimes their first. Someone even bought a Cadillac.

After the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania partially melted down in 1979, the nation's appetite for uranium withered. The mine closed in 1981, but its effects lingered.

"Every time you pick up the paper and see that someone has died on the reservation, it's always cancer," says Stratton.

The site drains into nearby Blue Creek. Tribal members are advised not to drink from it, eat fish caught from it or gather plants nearby. The creek runs into the Spokane River, a tributary of the Columbia River.

"It may appear to be a remote issue in northeastern Washington," says Mary Verner, a former Spokane mayor who served as the tribe's director of natural resources. "But it's a regional issue."

Warren Seyler, a former tribal councilmember, worked at the mine to help pay for college. He remembers wearing a button that would change colors, indicating that its wearer had been exposed to too much radiation and needed to stop working.

But most ignored the warning and kept working, hoping to take home a bigger check. Many also took dust-covered clothing home to their families.

"[They thought] this is my job, and I'm putting food on the table," he says.

Verner says that it wasn't until about a decade after its closing that the tribe realized how bad the mine was. After years of incremental regulations, mandates, negotiations and litigation, the federal government reached a settlement with Dawn Mining Company, LLC, and its corporate parent Newmont USA Ltd. (which didn't respond to a request for comment) under which both companies agreed to pay up to $193 million for the cleanup.

"The legacy of this mine has been an open, gaping wound on the landscape and series of broken promises for the Spokane Tribe," says Verner.

An aerial view of the now closed Midnite Mine on the Spokane Reservation. The EPA designated the mine a Superfund site. The companies that owned and operated it have been ordered to clean it up.
  • An aerial view of the now closed Midnite Mine on the Spokane Reservation. The EPA designated the mine a Superfund site. The companies that owned and operated it have been ordered to clean it up.

Carol Evans says her father didn't talk much about his day in the mine when he came home. She played with her siblings. He went out to tend cattle, and no one thought much about it. But he later fell ill, says Evans. She doesn't remember the name of the illness, but it was from the mine, and he qualified for compensation under a federal program.

"I think back to the employees working," says Evans. "They didn't know then what they know now, so you definitely have fathers and grandfathers that had diseases that were most likely caused by working in those places."

Evans was the second oldest of seven children. She grew up gathering camas, bitterroot and huckleberries. She ate venison and other wild game. She attended powwows, wakes and gatherings. She learned Salish songs and how to make beaded buckskin dresses and moccasins. She visited tribal elders and was taught to always shake their hands and listen to them.

When she was 14, she was crowned Miss Spokane and went with Alex Sherwood, a tribal councilmember she looked up to, to Seattle where she christened the MV Spokane ferry. While attending a tribal gathering, she recalls hearing the tribe's financial officer speak and came to a realization.

"I just decided then that I was going to have that gentleman's job someday," she says.

But her plans were derailed. She dropped out of Eastern Washington University, then moved to Tacoma and developed a drinking problem. In 1977, she married artist Terry Evans and moved back to Wellpinit the next year. When she became became pregnant with the first of her four children, she gave up drinking for good. She completed her degree and became the chief financial officer for the tribe.

In 1983, her mother, Pauline Stearns, became the first woman elected to the council. Evans says she brought the perspective of a traditional Spokane woman – the caretaker, the lifegiver – to the council. Thirty years later, Evans followed in her footsteps.

Those who've worked with her described her as industrious, committed to her tribe and diplomatic enough to overcome schisms on the council.

"I think it's just fate that aligned to give her this opportunity," says Seyler.

While serving as vice-chair of the council, Evans helped negotiate some of the final details of the cleanup plan, which was submitted July 16 and awaits final approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The cleanup, which could take a decade to complete, could begin next year.

Regardless, the reservation will never be the same.

Twa-le Swan, a tribal member and activist with the Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water, and Land Society, a grassroots advocacy group long active on mine-related issues, is concerned about the cleanup plan. She says the open pits will be partially filled with topsoil to prevent radon from escaping, which will require clear-cutting surrounding trees and will make the footprint of the mine larger.

"They've done enough damage," she says. "It's just a big, huge scar, and it's getting bigger."

The agreement also requires the companies to build a new water treatment facility to clean any nearby water to the tribe's stringent water quality standards before it is discharged into the Spokane River. Meeting the standards will be hard enough, but this facility will need to operate in perpetuity, a prospect that concerns Verner and others. She says that questions of who's responsible for funding and maintaining the facility will inevitably arise.

"The commitment to a perpetual solution is committing to do something and then walking away," says Verner.

The cleanup could be further stalled, according to Verner, who notes that every major development required a trip to Washington, D.C., to convince the federal government to move forward.

Getting the cleanup finished, says Evans, will require diligence.

"The cleanup needs to happen," says Evans. "We need to stop the leakage and the contamination."♦

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