Monitoring uranium mine pollution on Native American lands: Insights from tree bark particulate matter on the Spokane Reservation, Washington, USA

Environ Res. 2020 Dec 27;194:110619. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2020.110619. Online ahead of print.


The uranium boom in the United States from the 1940's to the 1980's was a period of extensive uranium mining on Native American lands. However, detailed environmental investigations of the resulting uranium pollution are sparse and typically ignore contributions from airborne particulate matter. The Midnite Mine is a 350-acre inactive open pit uranium mine located on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington that operated from 1954 to 1981. Approximately 2.4 million tons of ore and 33 million tons of waste rock were left behind in stockpiles and have also been utilized as gravel on access and haul roads. Although the Midnite Mine is now a Superfund Site, and governmental investigations of water and soil contamination have been done, no investigations of airborne particulate matter pollution have been conducted. This study applies tree bark from 31 Pinus ponderosa trees as a biomonitor of this airborne particulate matter. Bulk trace elemental analyses via inductively coupled plasma - mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) of tree bark show that U is the most abundant trace element of interest present up to 232 ppb. Other metals that are of potential human health concern include Th, Pb, and As which are present at 20 ppb, 104 ppb, and 20 ppb respectively. Calculated geoaccumulation indices determine these metals to be at high (U), moderate (Th), and low (Pb and As) levels of contamination. Detailed scanning electron microscopy (SEM) investigations of particulate matter from the surface of tree bark confirm that U and Th-bearing particulate matter exist in the <PM10 size fraction while geospatial analyses indicate that uranium, thorium, and arsenic contamination are centralized along the Midnite Mine access road and at the nearby Dawn Mill where ore was further processed. Combined, these findings indicate that the nature and distribution of historic airborne particulate matter from the Midnite Mine and Dawn Mill provide context for potentially understanding past and current illness on the reservation. In addition, much needed context for future health and environmental studies for both local and national Native American populations is provided.

Keywords: Atmospheric pollution; Biomonitors; Particulate matter; Pollution; Uranium mine.