SKULL VALLEY, Utah ? A plan to store the nation's nuclear waste on this isolated, disadvantaged Indian reservation is a classic example of "environmental racism" said Larry EchoHawk, a former Idaho Attorney General whose Pocatello law firm represents Goshute tribal members who oppose the deal.
EchoHawk's sons, Mark and Paul, are the lead attorneys in a struggle familiar to Indian country that pits much-needed jobs and revenue against core tribal values and traditions.
"It's an environmental justice issue," said Paul EchoHawk. "The nation's most toxic, lethal garbage would be stored on the Skull Valley reservation, home to the nation's poorest, most marginalized and most vulnerable group of people. It's unconscionable."
One of their clients, Marjene Bullcreek, a local activist and mother, said the $3 billion incentive offered by Private Fuel Storage, LLC, threatens to make the 112-member tribe cash-rich, but could bankrupt them culturally with the loss of land, language and even lives.
"The PFS dump would threaten our tribe's health, culture and community life," she said. "They think if they give us enough money, we'll just give up the land and move away. But our traditional values are closely linked to the land and our ability to live and pray here. That's where our real sovereignty lies."
After hearing about a "secret deal" between Chairman Leon Bear and PFS five years ago, Bullcreek wanted to know why the proposed lease of tribal land for a nuclear waste storage site was not brought to the general council for consideration and approval.
"What I found out was that most people had never seen the lease," she said. "We didn't have a chance to vote on it or talk about it until after it was already signed by three people who sit on our Executive Council."
Two have since had a change of heart and have called for public disclosure of the terms of the lease. Tribal secretary Rex Allen even led a petition drive to recall Bear on charges of corruption, and then resigned.
Bullcreek, a fluent Goshute-Shoshone speaker, sought allies in her community and in other tribes like the Mescalero Apache and Sac and Fox of Oklahoma who had been offered cash-for-waste deals by private companies and the federal government.
Armed with broader knowledge of the nuclear industry's two-decade effort to exploit Indian lands, she formed a local environmental protection group, Ohngo Gaudadeh Devia, the "timber-setting community," and organized to fight back.
Bullcreek learned that many tribal members fear that storing canisters of nuclear waste nearby would contaminate their people, the water table and environment.
"Our belief is that we must uphold our traditional values that say our land, animals, birds, plants, water and air are sacred."
Military and industrial ventures housed in Tooele County have already been blamed for pervasive contamination of the land over the past four decades.
Within a 40-mile radius is Dugway Proving Ground, where open-air tests of biological and chemical weapons were conducted until 1969. Six years ago, Dugway began incinerating its stockpile of nerve gases. Nearby, Tooele Army Depot houses stockpiles of anthrax, sarin and other deadly agents.
Tooele County, which surrounds the reservation, is home to a low-level radiation dump, a hazardous waste dump and two commercial hazardous waste incinerators. The smokestack from the Magnesium Corporation, which processes salt from the Great Salt Lake, belches chlorine and other air pollutants daily.
"Our reservation is all we have left after the government took most of our land," Bullcreek said. She and other traditionalists want leadership that views the land as more than real estate.
According to Bullcreek, the majority of the tribe's 70 adult voters recalled Bear from office on Aug. 25, but he refuses to step down and continues to attend all official functions along with the new council, she said.
"We had a traditional government where everybody looked at budgets and plans and came to a consensus. But Leon changed that since he got in there in 1995. Now he uses resolutions and makes up rules as he goes along.
"Where did we change from a traditional government to this corporate mentality?" she asked. "The people did not approve this kind of government. It's tearing us apart."
Videotapes, audio recordings and sworn affidavits from tribal members about the outcome of the recall have failed to convince BIA Superintendent Allen Anspach that Bear was voted out of office. He recently sent Bear a letter recognizing him as chairman.
According to Bullcreek and her supporters, the majority of tribal members oppose the 1997 lease that would create a joint PFS-Goshute temporary nuclear waste facility and they plan to come out in force at a rally on April 8 during the NRC hearings in Salt Lake City.
Mark EchoHawk said it is imperative that the BIA upholds its trust responsibility to ensure that the tribe is not being exploited and that the "lawfulness" of the lease and waste dump be examined in accordance with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
"As attorneys who advocate for Indian rights, it's unusual for us to be in a position where we are calling for federal intervention," he said. "We believe that internal governance matters of tribes should be respected.
"But in this situation, where tribal members have documented that they have elected new leaders and the BIA is ignoring the evidence, we think Secretary Norton needs to investigate the rampant corruption occurring in the establishment of the Skull Valley nuclear waste facility."