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Environmentally racist nuke waste dump tears Goshutes apart

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 7, 2001) Over the past 15 years, the US federal government and nuclear power industry have targeted dozens of impoverished Native American tribes for high-level nuclear waste dumps, offering large sums of money to "volunteer" communities for hosting the country's deadliest trash. Nuclear waste is not only a radiological hazard and a biological toxin, it is also a social poison that tears communities apart.

(559.5349) NIRS - After a six year long battle between the pro-dump tribal government and anti-dump tribal traditionals on the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, a "temporary storage site" for commercial spent fuel rods was finally defeated in the mid 1990's. Five years later, however, the wounds still have not healed, and some families still do not speak to each other. Right after its defeat at Mescalero Apache, the nuclear utilities turned to the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians in Utah. The Private Fuel Storage Limited Liability Company (PFS) is a consortium of eight nuclear utilities led by Xcel Energy (formerly called Northern States Power) of Minnesota. PFS has been paying Goshute Tribal Chairman Leon Bear the initial installments of an estimated US$50 million for his agreeing to "temporarily store" 40,000 tons of commercial spent fuel on the desert reservation. This Faustian bargain has similarly split this tiny 125 member community right down the middle (see also WISE News Communique 536.5211: "US: PFS gets safety approval from NRC").

Tension in the tribe has mounted since Bear signed the lease with PFS in late 1996. Tribal members such as Sammy Blackbear have accused Leon Bear of violating tribal government procedures, by signing an agreement without first bringing it to the 73 adult members of the community, the Tribal General Council, for a majority vote. Goshute dump opponents, such as Margene Bullcreek, have accused Bear of only sharing PFS income with community members who support the dump, while excluding those like herself and her family, a violation of the tribal tradition of sharing tribal income equally between Band families. In addition, Bullcreek charges, Bear has blocked her family's other sources of tribal income, including federal funds guaranteed to her children from the US government. Bullcreek has tried to lead the tribal opposition to the US$3.1 billion PFS dump proposal, while struggling to pay her own electricity, telephone, and grocery bills and to keep gas in her run down car.

The disputes have even infected Chairman Bear's own administration. In recent months, Bear changed the locks on the tribal office to keep his own Tribal Secretary, Rex Allen, locked out. In August, Salt Lake City police were called to intervene in a fistfight between Bear and Allen. Allen then challenged Bear's leadership, calling for a new tribal election on 22 September. Bear responded by putting bars on the windows and doors of the tribal community center where the election was to take place. The vote went ahead anyway, taking place outdoors in the parking lot under the hot desert sun. Ironically, not only Bear, but also Allen, were voted out of office. A quorum of 38 out of 73 adult members showed up for the vote, electing Miranda Moon the Chairwoman, Sammy Blackbear the Vice-Chairman, and Merlinda Wash the Secretary. Many outside observers initially saw this election as a referendum against PFS, but the newly elected tribal officers soon seemed to take a neutral position on the proposed dump.


On 30 November, a report leaked out of the US General Accounting Office (GAO, the investigative arm of the US Congress, which audits federal programs) quoted the US Department of Energy's (DOE) contractor Bechtel-SAIC as saying that scientific studies at Yucca cannot be completed until 2006. This is a major blow to DOE, which plans to give its approval to Yucca in the next month or two despite scientific uncertainties and evidence that the site is unsuitable for nuclear waste disposal. GAO recommends that DOE postpone its site suitability recommendation indefinitely.

On the same day, DOE terminated its contract with the law firm Winston & Strawn due to a scathing report released by the DOE Office of Inspector General showing that the law firm had simultaneously worked on DOE's supposedly objective and unbiased Yucca Mountain Project, while lobbying on behalf of the pro-Yucca Nuclear Energy Institute (the nuclear power industry's Washington, D.C. lobbying office).

On 5 December, the US Senate confirmed Margaret Chu as the new director of DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which oversees the Yucca Mountain Project. Apparently, the US Senate was not troubled by the fact that Chu will have to objectively evaluate her own work, for she supervised Yucca suitability studies over the course of two decades while working at DOE's Sandia National Lab in New Mexico. Chu was the 28th person to be asked to assume the vacant Yucca directorship; 27 others had turned down the Bush Administration's offer to manage the controversial Yucca Mountain Project.

Source and contact: NIRS (

Leon Bear would not step down, however, and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the 22 September vote. With the backing of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) local supervisor, David Allison, Bear called for another vote, this one on 13 October. Allison had given his approval to the PFS plan in early 1997, after having given only a short three days review to the complex PFS-Goshute lease agreement. Sammy Blackbear and 20 other Goshutes filed a lawsuit against the BIA in 1997, charging that Allison had violated his trust responsibility to safeguard the long term well being of the tribal community members and their reservation homeland by rubber stamping the dump proposal so quickly. Four years later, this case is still winding its way through the federal courts.

On 13 October, only around 24 tribal members - less than 50% of the adults of voting age - showed up for the election called by Leon Bear. Exact figures of the outcome were not announced. Bear nonetheless claimed victory. BIA's Allison has met with the two conflicting factions, but no resolution has been reached. There are rumors that the election dispute could be heading to federal court. In one sense, it already has. On Oct. 24, Leon Bear filed a lawsuit in federal court against three Utah banks, charging that the banks had given out US$367,000 of tribal funds to unauthorized persons. Bear's opponents accuse him of pocketing untold amounts of tribal funds. Because there is a leadership dispute, the banks have frozen the tribal accounts. Bear is suing the banks to regain access to the money. Vice-Chairman-elect Sammy Blackbear and his supporters have long accused Leon Bear of using PFS money to bribe tribal members into supporting the dump. Allegations of inappropriate use of tribal funds, used to purchase or lease brand new sport utility vehicles, recreational vehicles, and other cars have also been hurled at Leon Bear by his opponents. His opponents point to Bear's newly renovated house, while other reservation homes are in disrepair, and to Bear's driveway full of a number of new vehicles, while other yards are littered with cars that no longer run. US FBI agents have reportedly handed Bear and Allen grand jury subpoenas, requiring them to appear for questioning about the disposition of tribal funds.

There is another interesting approach to the issue. Tom Goldtooth, executive director of Indigenous Environmental Network and an Environmental Justice movement pioneer, reminded us that Leon Bear is not the enemy - the environmental racism of the nuclear utilities and government agencies pushing the dumps is the real enemy. In fact, PFS leader Xcel Energy is guilty of operating twin reactors and storing high-level radioactive waste in dry casks at the Prairie Island nuclear plant in Minnesota on the tiny Mississippi River island reservation, and against the will, of the Mdewekantan Dakota Indian Tribe. Xcel is guilty of supporting the flooding of Cree lands in northern Manitoba by importing large amounts of destructive hydro dam generated electricity from Canada. Xcel operates garbage burning electricity generating incinerators in Wisconsin that discharge dioxins that have appeared in Inuit womens' breast milk in the Arctic. But there is a ray of hope. In 1997, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission refused to give a license to a uranium enrichment plant targeted to be built in an African American rural community in Louisiana. The reason? NSP (now Xcel) had violated environmental justice principles (see also WISE News Communique 474.4694: "Environmental racism: LES license denied"). As Goldtooth said, it's time for the government and corporations to start cleaning up the messes they've already made, and supporting sustainable economic and energy development in impoverished communities of people of color.

Source and contact: Kevin Kamps at NIRS (