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Sacred Sites: Topock Maze, Needles, California

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June 20 is a day of prayer for the Topock Maze and other sites around the lower Colorado River near Needles, California, sacred to the Ft. Mojave Indian Tribe.

The Topock Maze of the Mystic Maze is a 600-year-old geoglyph As explained in an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "Modern Mojave people explain that the site receives the souls of the departed where the bad souls get lost and the good ones find a portal to an afterlife."

In the 1880s, the Southern Pacific Railroad laid tracks through the maze and destroyed a geoglyph of a human figure holding a snake that had its feet near the riverbank. The Maze is now just 15 acres in area, down from an original size of about 50 acres, and surrounded by interstate highways and a gas pipeline built by Pacific Gas & Electric. That later company added the Topock Natural Gas Compressor Station, which has polluted the groundwater under and around the Maze with hexavalent chromium—also known as Chromium 6—a toxic chemical that can cause numerous human and ecological health problems. PG&E, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) proceeded with Interim Measures to contain and investigate the contamination, which included the construction of a new Treatment Plant within the Maze area and the drilling of about 150 wells in California and Arizona, on either side of the Colorado River. These, taken together, create continuing cumulative adverse impacts to the Mojave people, its sacred landscape and tribal religious beliefs.

Chromium 6 is the chemical that made its way into drinking water near the Hinkley Compressor Station in Hinkley, California, prompting the famous successful lawsuit against PG&E that was coordinated by Erin Brockovich.

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In 2005, Ft. Mojave filed a lawsuit seeking the removal of the plant, total restoration of the sacred area, an environmental baseline of prior to the plant's construction and any other actions that could serve to remedy the desecration. Settlement negotiations concluded in November 2006 aimed to achieve each of these goals and secure other remedies including repatriation of portions of the sacred area to tribal ownership, sensitivity training for PG&E employees and contractors, a written public apology and reimbursement of past and future Tribal costs.

Earlier this year during selection of the Final Remedy, the DTSC made a finding that the Topock Cultural Area is an historic resource under state law and the BLM determined that a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) or property of traditional religious and cultural significance within a 1,600 acre Area of Potential Effect is eligible for listing on the National Register under Criterion A, as part of what tribes have identified as a larger area of traditional and cultural importance.

Yet, DTSC and BLM failed to consult with the Tribe on the final mitigation measures, assuming they knew what was best for all the Tribal Governments along the Lower Colorado River and how the sacred area could be best protected. The DTSC failure to complete a legally adequate environment document, and failure to live up to certain terms in its settlement agreement with the Tribe, is the subject of a second lawsuit brought by the Tribe under state environmental laws. In its approval of the Final Remedy, BLM has continued to put off dealing with mitigation for the continued impacts of up to 170 new wells and related infrastructure into the Tribe’s sacred area, putting the sustainability of the Tribe’s cultural and spiritual practices of the Tribe at further risk for decades to come.