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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Goshutes Propose Nuclear Waste Dump

Air Date: Week of

A small, impoverished group of Native Americans has come up with a controversial way to bring money onto its reservation. The Goshutes of Utah want to build a high-level nuclear waste dump on their land. Not surprisingly, the proposal has its critics, both on and off the reservation. Living On Earth host Steve Curwood speaks with Kevin Fedarko, who reported on the plan for Outside Magazine.


CURWOOD: It's safe to say that most people would not jump at the chance to have a nuclear waste dump in their neighborhood. But one small group of Native Americans says it wants nuclear waste on its land. The Goshute Nation of Utah has signed a contract with a group of nuclear power plants. Spent uranium fuel rods would be kept in stainless steel casks on tribal lands, about 85 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, until a permanent site is made available by the government. Most Goshute see this deal as a way to climb out of poverty, but some members of the tribe and many Utah officials oppose the plan. Kevin Fedarko is a senior editor with Outside Magazine who has followed the story for years. He says if the nuclear waste dump is approved by the federal government, it would take up residence in an area called Skull Valley, a place already chock full of toxic and military sites.

FEDARKO: The valley is about 50 miles long running from north to south. And up at the northern end there is a plant called Magcor, which is responsible for producing magnesium, which they extract from the Great Salt Lake. And Magcor has the distinction of having one of the worst records of toxic emissions of any plant in the country. It's been rated number one by the EPA for the past several years.

CURWOOD: Now there's some other stuff there, right, that's pretty toxic.

FEDARKO: There's a very large bombing range operated by the U.S. Air Force, the Windover bombing range, where all sorts of military exercises take place. And they actually bomb the desert during the course of these operations. To the south of the valley is the Dougway proving ground. It's an area about the size of the state of Rhode Island. It's where the U.S. Army and the U.S. military since World War II have developed and done extensive research into biological and chemical weapons warfare. Directly to the east of the valley is an incinerator where approximately 43 percent of America's chemical weapons, nerve agents, Sarin, mustard gas, that sort of thing, 43 percent of those weapons are being incinerated in a 24-hour, 365-day a year operation. That pretty much completes the tour.

CURWOOD: There's a passage in your article that kind of illustrates the dual nature of Skull Valley. You write about camping out there one evening. I'm wondering if you could read that section.

FEDARKO: Sure. (Reads) What I realized as dusk faded to dark was that Skull is a place of austere beauty, so remote that its wild birds behave in a manner that seems almost tame. A place full of such profound silence that sometimes the only sound you seem to hear is the throb of your own blood pulsing through the arteries in your neck. I leaned back, stared up at a great bowl of stars, and listened to the droning of the crickets and the barking of a distant pack of coyotes. I started to forget about the dangers that surround the valley and got lost in the towering stillness. And then the explosions started.

CURWOOD: What you heard were B1 bombers dropping ordnance, huh?

FEDARKO: You don't hear them so much as register them in your gut. I've never experienced anything quite like it. When the first one went off I was actually making dinner, and I dropped the pot and spoon I was holding, and stood up and stared with an open mouth and didn't know what to think.

CURWOOD: Well, that seems like a rather unfriendly place to living things. The part of the Goshute tribe that would like to put a nuclear waste dump there argue, I imagine, that I don't think they're going to put up condos or get anybody to buy the organically-grown produce in a spot like this.

FEDARKO: No, indeed not. And this is an argument the Goshute tribal leadership make, which is rather compelling. I mean, there is some logic to it. The tribe has undertaken, over the past couple of decades, to involve themselves in a number of economic development plans, all of which have kind of, you know, foundered on the waste that surrounds them. I think Pepsi-Co, at one point, approached the tribe with the idea of putting in a bottling plant in Skull Valley, and that proposal was pretty much killed when they heard about the Dougway proving ground. There was also a local water bottling company which was interested in tapping the springs underneath the valley. Again, that whole venture collapsed very quickly when the people involved realized what was surrounding the valley.

CURWOOD: Now, in your article about the Goshute, you write that these people asking for the nuclear waste facility are the most ravaged group of Indians, and if you think about the history of Native Americans here, that's quite a statement.

FEDARKO: It's a pretty strong claim. But there are a number of things that happened to the Goshutes that are pretty horrific. There are accounts written in the 1850s and the 1860s of the tribe being pushed so close to the edge of starvation that there are reports of entire families cropping grass like cattle. There are a couple of things which were actually not included in the story because we felt that it was a bit too much for the reader to absorb. One of the more horrific involved an argument that sprang up among a group of white settlers in the early 1860s, and there was an argument over whether Goshutes were base enough to feed on carrion. And the argument eventually was settled when a dead oxen was laced with strychnine and placed in the desert. Several days later an entire family of Goshutes was discovered dead around the oxen.

CURWOOD: So they have a pretty rough history. Now, there aren't that many people that live at the reservation now. I'm wondering, what are the conditions that they're living in right now?

FEDARKO: The conditions are bad. There are about 25 people living in a small cluster of homes just off of one highway which runs through the valley. Although it's worth pointing out, there are kind of two classes of homes on the reservation. There are a number of homes which have fresh coats of paint and a new car or two parked in the driveway. And then there are other homes which are, the windows have cardboard in them. And if you go in and talk to those people, you may discover that they don't have indoor plumbing.

CURWOOD: And the differences between these two Goshutes is because?

FEDARKO: Well, the difference is explained by allegations made by a number, a minority of tribal members who opposed the plan to store nuclear waste on the reservation. A group of these people charge that, as a result of their opposition to this potentially very lucrative nuclear dump site, they have been deprived of any sort of funds which are normally dispersed to members of the community.

CURWOOD: That's a pretty serious charge. What does the leadership of the tribe say to that?

FEDARKO: Well, it's interesting because the leadership of the tribe doesn't really deny it outright. Leon Bear is the chairman of the tribe. I confronted Bear with these accusations at one point during the course of reporting the story, and he actually kind of acknowledged that this was indeed the case. He explained to me that the way the tribe is set up, he is able legally to divert any money which is coming onto the reservation into the tribe as a result of this nuclear waste project to members who support his resolutions pushing the nuclear waste dump forward. Bear actually kind of likened this to buying stock in a corporation.

CURWOOD: How large is the opposition to this plan?

FEDARKO: It's hard to tell, really. The opposition initially was led by Margene Bull Creek, and Margene started an organization about three years ago. She claimed at the time to have had as many as one third of the tribal members behind her. But if she ever had that many, those numbers have been whittled down considerably in the past several years.

CURWOOD: So how much do the Goshutes stand to gain if this project goes forward?

FEDARKO: You know, that's unclear. The contract does stipulate the amount of money which would be paid by this consortium, but that passage has been blacked out.

CURWOOD: The state of Utah doesn't much like this. Certainly the governor there, Mike Levitt, has been outspoken about it. But do they have any say? I'm wondering, is this truly sovereign territory, the Indian Nation of Goshute?

FEDARKO: The state of Utah has very little ,if anything at all, to say about what goes on, on the reservation itself. But it has a lot to say about what can happen around the reservation, and on the roads leading into the reservation, and on the rail lines that go by the reservation. And yes, Mike Levitt is adamantly opposed to the idea of bringing this material into Utah and into Skull Valley and storing it there. He actually used the phrase "over my dead body" when we spoke about the proposal.

CURWOOD: You've made a number of trips, now, to Skull Valley. What do you see in terms of shades of gray in this story?

FEDARKO: That's a good question. I think the complexity of it has only grown the longer I've spent with it, so that I guess I've emerged with less of an understanding than ever as to what's right and what's wrong about this issue and this question. And maybe that is the kind of core element of truth that resides at the center of all of this. You know, nuclear waste is something that our society has generated, and now we don't know what to do with it. And the answer and the solution that we appear to have developed is that, well, we've decided that we're going to put it in places where both the land and the people who live upon it are deemed to have no value whatsoever. And I guess, for me, the story that is continuing to unfold in Skull Valley represents the inadequacy of that answer.

CURWOOD: Kevin, thanks for speaking with us today.

FEDARKO: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Kevin Fedarko is a Senior Editor with Outside Magazine. You can read the full text of Kevin's story on the Goshute nuclear waste dump proposal by going to our Web site at www.loe.org, and clicking on the Outside Magazine icon.



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