SKULL VALLEY, Utah ? Despite protests from tribal members and questions about the legitimacy of his leadership, the chairman of the Goshute Band of Skull Valley Indians is moving ahead with plans to build a $3.1 billion nuclear waste storage facility on his reservation.
Leon Bear, who opponents insist was ousted in an Aug. 25 recall vote, continues to be recognized by BIA Agency Superintendent Allen Anspach as the tribe's chairman while a new executive council, led by Marlinda Moon, maintains it was elected in a Sept. 22 meeting. The BIA has offered to oversee new elections, but both camps have refused.
"Politics here are just like the rest of the country," Bear, 45, said in an interview. "Look at the last presidential election. Just because there's some political turmoil doesn't mean we're not a stable government."
The question of who is in charge is key to whether or not the 112-member tribe will honor a 1997 lease signed by Bear ? and conditionally approved by BIA ? that will bring some 40,000 metric tons of nuclear waste to the reservation for "temporary" storage until a permanent waste dump can be built, presumably at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
Opponents fear that once the waste arrives, it will stay, given that the Yucca Mountain project is delayed by 12 years and faces intense opposition from Western Shoshone and Nevada officials.
Bear said the lease with Private Fuel Storage, a limited-liability shell corporation chartered in Delaware, authorizes storage of 4,000 steel-and-concrete casks filled with radioactive waste. The material would come from nuclear reactors owned by eight utility companies: Xcel Energy, Genoa Fuel Tech, American Electric Power, Southern California Edison, Southern Nuclear Company, First Energy, Entergy and Florida Power and Light.
The deal is in the licensing stage and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is holding public hearings in Utah from April 8 through May 17. Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt and the Utah Congressional delegation are presenting heated opposition. Leavitt signed a bill banning high-level nuclear waste from entering Utah last year and vows to continue the fight.
The 18-foot tall casks filled with "spent nuclear fuel" will be transported across dozens of states from more than 100 commercial nuclear reactors and stored above ground on a concrete pad about five miles from the tiny community of Skull Valley, located 45 miles west of Salt Lake City. The lease allows for storage up to 40 years.
Bear estimated 85 acres of tribal land would be used, but the web site for Private Fuel Storage indicates the tribe agreed to lease 820 acres, about 100 of which would make up the temporary facility surrounded by a buffer zone. Bear said it is projected to open in 2004.
Bear said a tribal resolution mandating confidentiality about the lease prevents him from disclosing the amount of money the tribe will receive, but his critics estimate the deal is worth between $60 to $200 million. Bear said lease payments could bring housing, health care and law enforcement services to the tribe, only 25 members of which live on the reservation. Most live in Grantsville, Salt Lake and other western cities.
Bear confirmed the tribe has already received some money for "exclusivity rights" to the land, but would not say exactly how much has come into tribal coffers.
When asked if the reported figure of $1.4 million was correct, he said, "it might be close to a million." The actual amount and how it was used are the focus of an FBI investigation; reports say subpoenas were issued in September seeking contracts, correspondence, checks, bank records, deposit slips and disbursement of funds. FBI officials said they could not comment on the investigation.
Sammy Black Bear, who was elected vice-chair in the Sept. 22 elections, and activist Marjene Bullcreek publicly accused Bear of corruption and bribing some tribal members to accept payment of $5,000 to $6,000 each to support the waste project. They claim those who oppose it have received nothing and that Bear has pocketed the funds.
"I don't know where they get that stuff," Bear said. "It's not true. The money went into our principal account and was used for tribal programs and for administrative costs."
But in February, in response to tribal members' complaints, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ordered the tribe to turn over financial information related to the lease. The NRC overturned that decision on March 7, questioning whether it could lawfully inquire into the internal financial and governance matters of a federally recognized tribe.
The cloud of controversy surrounding the nuclear waste storage site includes several lawsuits filed by tribal members and the State of Utah.
Monte Stewart, Utah Assistant Attorney General, filed suit in federal district court to block the "PFS-Goshute scheme" on the basis that it is illegal under federal law. He said Congress clearly prohibited a privately owned storage facility in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982 and subsequent amendments. His petition will be heard in district court April 11.
"The act prohibits the storage of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants at an away-from-reactor storage facility, unless it's done in a Monitored Retrievable Storage facility owned and operated by the federal government," he said. "Congress never intended for private companies to run these facilities and placed elaborate restrictions on the siting, construction and operation of nuclear waste storage facilities to ensure public safety."
Utility companies are under pressure to secure nuclear waste storage sites because the federal government to has failed to provide facilities, as the NWPA required by 1998. The waste is currently stored on-site at hundreds of commercial reactors in cooling pools and many facilities are running out of space, which could force the utilities to shut them down.
In 1993, the U.S. Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator pitched a plan to Indian tribes to store nuclear waste on reservations in exchange for financial incentives. In response, Bear has worked on building a facility since he was tribal secretary in 1993.
He said at that time his people supported the idea and voted to accept $300,000 from the federal government to study the proposal. Bear and other officials visited nuclear reactors with temporary storage facilities on site in several states and toured Japan, England, France and Sweden to study how they deal with nuclear waste.
He believes he has followed the directives of his constituency and is now on the verge of successfully bringing economic development and much-needed jobs to the reservation.
"It's all about economics," Bear said. "We are a small tribe with no tax base on an isolated reservation surrounded by polluting industries. We'll always have to look outside for revenue."
The NRC is expected to make a decision on the PFS-Goshute license this fall.