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Environmental Racism, Tribal Sovereignty and Nuclear Waste


High-Level Atomic Waste Dump
Targeted at Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah

"There is nothing moral about tempting a starving man with money."
– Keith Lewis, of the Serpent River First Nation in Ontario, reflecting on his impoverished community’s 50 years of working in and living near uranium mines & mills, and the health and environmental catastrophe that has resulted.

Tribal dump opponent Margene Bullcreek of OGD

Nevadans and Utahans living downwind and downstream from nuclear weapons testing, uranium mining, and radioactive waste dumping have suffered immensely during the Nuclear Age. But even in the "nuclear sacrifice zones" of the desert Southwest, it is Native Americans--from Navajo uranium miners to tribal communities targeted with atomic waste dumps-- who have borne the brunt of both the front and back ends of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The tiny Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians Reservation in Utah is targeted for a very big nuclear waste dump. Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a limited liability corporation representing eight powerful nuclear utilities, wants to "temporarily" store 40,000 tons of commercial high-level radioactive waste (nearly the total amount that presently exists in the U.S.) next to the two-dozen tribal members who live on the small reservation. The PFS proposal is the latest in a long tradition of targeting Native American communities for such dumps. But there is another tradition on the targeted reservations as well–fighting back against blatant environmental racism, and winning. Skull Valley Goshute tribal member Margene Bullcreek leads Ohngo Gaudadeh Devia (or OGD, Goshute for "Mountain Community"), a grassroots group of tribal members opposed to the dump. In addition to many other activities, OGD has filed an environmental justice contention before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB).

Both the federal government and the commercial nuclear power industry have targeted Native American reservations for such dumps for many years. In 1987, the U.S. Congress created the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator in an effort to open a federal "monitored retrievable storage site" for high-level nuclear waste. The Negotiator sent letters to every federally recognized tribe in the country, offering hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars to tribal council governments for first considering and then ultimately hosting the dump. Out of the hundreds of tribes approached, the Negotiator eventually courted about two dozen tribal councils in particular.

Resistance from members within the targeted tribes, however, prevented the proposed dumps from opening. Grace Thorpe, founder of the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans and an emeritus member of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service board of directors, rallied her fellow tribal members and defeated the dump targeted at her own Sauk and Fox reservation in Oklahoma. Tribal members on other targeted reservations turned to Thorpe, and to such Native-led groups as Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and Honor the Earth, to learn how to organize their community to resist the federal nuclear waste dump.

The Negotiator eventually set his sights on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. But tribal member Rufina Marie Laws spearheaded her community’s resistance against her own tribal council and the Negotiator, thwarting the dump. After having failed to open the intended dump, Congress defunded and dissolved the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator in 1994.

The commercial nuclear power industry, however, picked up where the Negotiator had left off. Led by Northern States Power (now Xcel Energy), 8 nuclear utility companies formed a coalition that attempted to overcome the resistance at Mescalero. A tribal referendum, however, doomed the dump to eventual failure. The utility coalition regrouped as Private Fuel Storage, and then turned to the Skull Valley Goshutes in Utah, another community that had been on the Negotiator’s target list.

At the same time, the nuclear power industry contributed large sums to Congressional and Presidential campaigns, and lobbied hard on Capitol Hill to establish a "temporary storage site" at the Nevada nuclear weapons test site, not far from the proposed federal permanent underground dump for high-level atomic waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Both these proposed "temporary" and permanent dump sites would be on Western Shoshone land, as affirmed by the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. Yucca Mountain is sacred to the Western Shoshone, and their National Council has long campaigned to prevent nuclear dumping there.

Several incarnations of the nuclear power industry-backed "Mobile Chernobyl" bill appeared between 1995 and 2000. They were so dubbed because, if enacted, they would have launched the beginning of tens of thousands of dangerous irradiated nuclear fuel shipments to Nevada. Grassroots efforts across the country, combined with Nevadan leadership in Congress and an unwavering veto pledge by President Clinton, has successfully stopped "Mobile Chernobyl" in its tracks on Capitol Hill for the past five years.

Having lost its bid to "temporarily" store its deadly wastes on Western Shoshone land near Yucca Mountain, nuclear utilities have re-focused their hopes for "interim" relief on Nevada’s neighbor, Utah. PFS must have done its homework: it would be hard to find a community more economically and politically vulnerable than the Skull Valley Goshutes to the Faustian bargain of getting "big bucks" in exchange for hosting the nation’s deadliest poisons.

Just 25 tribal members live on the tiny Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians Reservation, an hour’s drive west and south from Salt Lake City in Tooele County, Utah. The remaining 100 Band members live in surrounding towns in Tooele County, in Salt Lake City, and elsewhere. The reservation is already surrounded by toxic industries. Magnesium Corporation is the nation’s worst air polluter, belching voluminous chlorine gas and hydrochloric acid clouds; hazardous waste landfills and incinerators dot the map; with a name straight out of Orwell’s 1984, Envirocare dumps "low level" nuclear waste in the next valley and is applying to accept atomic trash hundreds of times more radioactive than its present license allows. Dugway Proving Ground has tested VX nerve gas, leading in 1968 to the "accidental" killing of 6,400 sheep grazing in Skull Valley, whose toxic carcasses were then buried on the reservation without the tribe’s knowledge, let alone approval. The U.S. Army stores half its chemical weapon stockpile nearby, and is burning it in an incinerator prone to leaks; jets from Hill Air Force Base drop bombs on Wendover Bombing Range, and fighter crashes and misfired missiles have struck nearby. Tribal members’ health is undoubtedly adversely impacted by this alphabet soup of toxins. Now PFS wants to add high-level nuclear waste to the mix.

This toxic trend in Tooele County has left the reservation with almost no alternative economy. Pro-dump tribal chairman Leon Bear summed up his feelings: "We can’t do anything here that’s green or environmental. Would you buy a tomato from us if you knew what’s out here? Of course not. In order to attract any kind of development, we have to be consistent with what surrounds us."

Targeting a tiny, impoverished Native American community, already so disproportionately overburdened with toxic exposures, to host the United States’ nuclear waste dump would seem a textbook violation of environmental justice. But the nuclear utilities did not let such considerations slow down their push for the PFS dump on the Skull Valley Reservation.

Two days after Christmas in 1996, without the knowledge or approval of the Skull Valley Goshute General Council (the 60 adult members who govern the tribe), Tribal Chairman Leon Bear signed a lease agreement with PFS for an undisclosed amount of money. To this day, no tribal member outside the three member tribal executive committee knows how much money the tribe would receive for hosting the nation’s atomic waste dump. The NRC, which must issue a license in order for the dump to open, ruled in its June, 2000 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that the dump does not violate environmental justice, because PFS will pay the tribe so handsomely. Estimates of the secretive pay-off to the tribal council range from 60 to 200 million dollars.

PFS’s strategy is simple: use unlimited amounts of money to buy out any potential opposition to locate a dump on the reservation. In 1999, PFS entered into an undisclosed monetary agreement with resistant local cattle ranchers, and in May 2000 signed a deal with Tooele County in exchange for support of the dump. In an area of economic scarcity, money talks loudly. "It's pretty clear that utilities are willing to spend billions to move the spent fuel out of their back yard into ours," said Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, who adamantly opposes the PFS dump.

"The real issue is not the money," Bullcreek, has said. "The real issue is who we are as Native Americans and what we believe in. If we accept these wastes, we're going to lose our tradition."

Bullcreek, a tribal member who resides on the reservation with her children, disagrees with NRC’s ruling that the dump presents "no disproportionately high and adverse impacts on low income or minority populations." (DEIS, pg. LXX of the introduction).

She first became concerned by the way in which Chairman Bear had gone about signing the lease (without first bringing it to the general council for a vote). As she looked into it, she learned about the dangers of high-level nuclear waste, about the ways the PFS dump would threaten her tribe’s health, culture, traditions and reservation community life. The NRC’s ruling assumes that, given enough money, tribal members such as Bullcreek and her family could simply move from the reservation if they didn’t like the sight of a nuclear waste dump out their kitchen window.

Such false logic fails to recognize traditional tribal members’ inextricable spiritual attachment to the land they and their ancestors inhabit.

"Cedar and Sage are sacred here," says Bullcreek. "I cut willow branches over there to cradle my babies like my mother did, and my grandmother did, and her mother and her mother. Their bones are on this land. If you think this is desolate then you don’t know the land. You don’t know how to be still and listen. There is peace here. I felt I had to be outspoken or lose everything that has been passed down from generations. The stories that tell why we became the people we are and how we should consider our animal life, our air, things that are sacred to us. Leon Bear is trying to convince himself that what he is doing is right, but this waste will destroy who we are."

Bullcreek is fighting the dump because it would ruin that peace and her family’s ancient connection to the land. If the dump is built, she has said she would be forced to move away from the homeland she loves. Has NRC considered the fact that for Bullcreek-–a fluent speaker of her native tongue-–to move away from the community would be yet another severe blow to the endangered Goshute language? What about other similar adverse impacts to the traditional culture? NRC’s ruling that the dump is justified because of the large economic benefit for the tribe (DEIS, p. 6-28) also fails to recognize that Chairman Bear seems to have no intention of sharing proceeds from PFS with opponents to the dump. OGD’s contention before the Licensing Board challenges this NRC finding of no environmental justice (EJ) violation.

Tribal opposition to the dump has taken a number of other, complementary paths as well. Tribal member Sammy Blackbear, who lives with his four children on the reservation, has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, alleging that it violated its trust responsibility to the tribe by quickly approving an illegitimate lease agreement between Chairman Bear and PFS. Over twenty tribal members, including Bullcreek, have joined as co-plaintiffs. Blackbear is also working with his U.S. Congressman to investigate allegations that Chairman Bear has used PFS income to bribe some tribal members into supporting the lease agreement and dump proposal, while blocking other payments due tribal members who oppose the dump.

Bullcreek and Blackbear are actively working with concerned citizens of Utah to develop an alternative economic plan for their reservation. An effort is underway to obtain solar panels and wind turbines for installation in the community as a clean, renewable source of electricity. Both are also working with allies in the political and grassroots arenas outside the reservation, to counter the vast resources of the powerful nuclear utilities and other corporations promoting PFS.

OGD’s EJ contention before the ASLB could be key to stopping the dump. A successful EJ contention against Louisiana Energy Services (LES) was essential in defeating a proposed uranium enrichment plant targeted at an impoverished rural African-American community. The NRC Licensing Board overseeing the LES case quoted President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 in its ruling: "[T]o the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law…each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States."

OGD and its legal representatives must now navigate the complex legal and bureaucratic labyrinth of the NRC’s Atomic Safety & Licensing Board. The huge financial costs—difficult for a small group such as OGD to raise--required to effectively participate in NRC hearings poses the question, is the NRC ASLB process itself a violation of environmental justice? OGD’s contention hearing, originally scheduled for June, has now been delayed until December, 2001.

If the NRC’s DEIS ruling--that the proposed dump is not an EJ violation because PFS will pay the tribe a relatively large sum of money–stands uncontested, it could serve as a precedent to "justify" federal regulatory agencies licensing toxic facilities that target impoverished minority communities, so long as the polluting corporation "compensates" the victims with "enough" money to "live with it" or relocate elsewhere. Offering reservation communities "enough" money to "put up with" or relocate away from proposed toxic facilities on their homeland nevertheless despoils or removes the land in which traditional culture and spirituality is rooted.

Dangling big bucks in front of impoverished reservation communities, tempting them to do something they otherwise would not, enables corporations to "divide and conquer," by setting tribal councils against traditionals, and tribal members against each other. Even though no waste has been dumped yet, Bullcreek says PFS is already ripping her community apart.

The outcome of the PFS fight may set important precedents for tribal sovereignty and environmental protection on reservations. The nuclear power industry is attempting to evade environmental regulations and State of Utah opposition by hiding behind the shield of tribal sovereignty. If successful, this could threaten to undermine tribal sovereignty itself.

"Sovereignty isn’t selling your independence and your heritage to the highest bidder," Bullcreek says. "What choice will we have after they park all that radioactive waste on our land?"

The lease agreement signed by Chairman Bear and PFS requires that the tribe "use its sovereign nation status to support and promote this Lease and Project," and that the tribe "not, at any time, pass any law, rule or regulation which could adversely affect or burden this Lease or the Project…" (Lease between Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians and PFS, May 20, 1997, p. 18). The lease also forbids the tribe from setting any environmental protection standards that are stronger than federal standards (p.24). The agreement, in effect, forfeits control of the reservation dumpsite to PFS, and regulation to the federal NRC.

Calling on the State of Utah to take action by entering dialogue with the Goshutes about compensation, remediation and clean up of existing environmental devastation on and around Skull Valley, Indigenous Environmental Network director Tom Goldtooth said "We recognize the sovereignty of the Skull Valley Tribal Council to make decisions on behalf of their people, but the Tribe is in this situation to begin with because of unjust policies that have negatively impacted their inherent rights to maintain a healthy, economically viable community. The Tribe is not the enemy here, Private Fuel Storage is. The State needs to look at policies that threaten the Tribe’s health and well-being and work to rectify those first."

"The nuclear industry is using Native land and Native people as a loophole to keep their reactors running," says Honor the Earth spokesperson Winona LaDuke. "The nuclear industry needs to be called to the table for seeking a political solution to the deadly environmental problem of nuclear waste they created by targeting isolated Native communities. It’s bad policy and it’s wrong."

"Our reservation is sacred. This is the only land we have–the only thing the government left us after taking most of our country," Bullcreek said.

Radioactivity, because of its disproportionate harmful impact on Native Americans over the past 60 years, has been called the "smallpox blanket of the Nuclear Age," referring to the practice of giving infested blankets to tribes to wipe them out and clear their lands for expropriation.

"It is time to right the injustices of the past, and develop just and honorable relationships with Native peoples," said Winona LaDuke.

Fighting against the PFS high-level nuclear waste dump targeted at the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes is the front line of that struggle for Native American environmental justice against corporate greed and environmental racism.

What You Can Do

April 26, 2001–the 15th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe–has been declared a National Day of Action against PFS’s environmental racism and the "Mobile Chernobyl" its dump would launch. Demonstrations are being organized at the reactors and/or headquarters of the 8 utilities that comprise PFS, calling upon them to withdraw from the consortium.

Actions are also being organized along the targeted transport routes nationwide, seeking to win local resolutions against the tens of thousands of irradiated fuel shipments that would go to Utah and Nevada if the PFS and Yucca Mountain dumps go into operation. Sample resolutions are on NIRS’ website.

Other action ideas: Host a letter writing party targeting the PFS companies’ CEOs. Write letters to the editor and op-ed pieces. Organize a fundraiser to help pay for OGD’s legal actions. Hold a teach-in or press conference in your community or campus. Check the NIRS website frequently for materials, new information and ideas. Contact NIRS to plug into the action nearest you, to find out other ways to become involved, and to be connected to other groups across the country working on these issues.

Prepared February 15, 2001, by Kevin Kamps, Nuclear Waste Specialist, Nuclear Information Resource Service, 1424 16th Street, NW, Suite 404, Washington, D.C., 20036. 202.328.0002; f: 202.462.2183;,

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