From the Spokesman Review:

When there’s a funeral on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Harold Campbell puts on his grave-digging hat, collects his tools and heads to the cemetery.

Over the past 30 years, the volunteer gravedigger has helped prepare the final resting spots for hundreds of the tribe’s members. Death is a familiar presence to Campbell, who sits with grieving families and blesses burial plots with the fragrant smoke of sage and sweetgrass. Yet one aspect troubles him: Too many Spokane Indians die from cancer.

“I watch them die, young and old,” Campbell said. “I think it’s caused by the radiation.”

The radiation is from the Northwest’s only open-pit uranium mines – an all-but- forgotten chapter of Washington’s Cold War history. Uranium ore was blasted out of the Spokane Reservation’s arid hillsides and sold to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The truckloads of radioactive material that rumbled daily through the reservation helped build the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

The mines closed 30 years ago, but they’ve left a complex legacy of pride, patriotism and radioactive pollution on the 157,000-acre reservation west of Spokane.

After uranium deposits were discovered in the 1950s, entire families drew paychecks from the mines. The work seemed part of a greater cause, a strike against communism. And it brought a flash of prosperity to the impoverished reservation through steady paychecks and mining royalties.

But now there are troubling questions. Many workers labored without adequate safety gear. They brought home dust on their clothing, exposing their families to radiation and heavy metals. Uncovered ore trucks spilled radioactive rock, creating “hot spots” along the highway bisecting the reservation.

With each new cancer diagnosis, people wonder: Is it from the radiation?

It’s a haunting question. Bob Brisbois, the tribe’s executive director, lost five members of his extended family to cancer in a single year.

“Where did I get this cancer from? I never smoked,” Brisbois recalls his mother saying before she died of colon and bone cancer. “I would like to know where I got all this.”

Brisbois’ 40-year-old nephew had the same question. “He swam in the Spokane River below the mine,” Brisbois said. “He ate the roots and berries and wild game.” The nephew died last year of cancer that started in his bladder and spread throughout his body.

More.

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