Skull Valley Goshutes sue state of Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY - The Skull Valley Goshute Indians and a group of nuclear power utilities filed a lawsuit April 19 in federal district court to prevent the state of Utah from enacting laws to prevent storage of spent nuclear fuel waste on the reservation.

The first of two laws signed by Gov. Mike Leavitt March 13 effectively bans the storage of nuclear waste in the state. The second requires a guarantee of $2 billion for compensation should there be an accident.

Leavitt is an outspoken critic of potential storage of nuclear fuel waste at Skull Valley. Sources in Leavitt's office say they are ready for a court fight.

"If we have to meet them in court, that's what we'll do. We do not want high-level nuclear waste in Utah. This shows that they are insistent about moving the material from someone else's backyard to ours. We will continue to fight that, using every legal, environmental, legislative and political tool available," Leavitt said earlier.

Though Leavitt has many allies in the Utah state legislature, there are reports Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told Leavitt there may not be anything the federal government can do to prevent the site.

The laws are a reaction to an agreement by the cash-strapped Goshutes and a consortium of waste-producing utilities, primarily nuclear, called Private Fuel Storage to create a $125 million, 820-acre storage facility on the Skull Valley Reservation.

At 40,000 metric tons, this would be the largest nuclear waste storage facility in the country as there are a total of 70,000 metric tons in the entire United States.

Opponents of the project point out that if an accident were to happen the nearest clean-up unit is in California, more than 800 miles away.

The lure of money apparently is what is fueling the tribe's efforts to bring the nuclear waste facility to the reservation. The majority of the 112-member tribe lives off the reservation and the storage facility is promising 45 jobs and tribal members will get first crack.

Private Fuel Storage is a limited liability company, which effectively acts as a shield for the nuclear power companies. If there is an accident, the liability is lessened by the consortium rather than making actual producers of nuclear waste responsible.

In addition to receiving waste from nuclear power facilities, waste would come from such United States government sources as decommissioned nuclear submarines and nuclear testing centers including two in Utah.

The Skull Valley Goshutes originally made the deal with Private Fuel Storage in 1997 after being frustrated in attempts to find other sources of economic development. Tribal sources are reported as saying an already existing U.S. military hazardous waste site that handles biological and chemical weapons has blocked commerce in the past.

Tribal Chairman Leon Bear said the majority of his tribe supports the measure. He said 80 percent of the adult voting members signed off on the resolution when it was presented to the tribe. He said the project will bring economic development to the tribe.

Tribal members Sammy Blackbear and Margene Bullcreek are leading the opposition. Both reside on the reservation. They organized an opposition group called Ohnogo Gaudadeh Devia, which means "mountain community" in the Goshute language.

Bullcreek and King make several allegations against Bear, including coercion and monetary reward for those who support the nuclear waste proposal which they said is the reason the majority of the tribe signed off on the resolution. They claim the tribe gave gifts ranging from indoor plumbing, electricity and new cars to those who support Bear, and only monthly payments of around $7 to those who oppose him.

Bear insists this is not true. He said the money is part of tribal programs for anyone who wants them.

"If they don't want to participate in the tribal programs and money, that's up to them," said Bear who added he has never made special gifts to supporters of the nuclear waste proposal.

There are claims both Blackbear and Bullcreek were threatened and have been victims of character defamation. Bullcreek confirmed this, saying she received threats to burn down her house.

Bullcreek said Bear attempted to gag the tribe by forcing people to sign an agreement that would prohibit them from speaking to the press and others about tribal business outside of tribal meetings.

It appears the consequences of not agreeing to such a rule prohibits dissenters from taking part in tribal decisions at council meetings.

For his part, Bear said this is all part of tribal confidentiality and is meant only to protect certain sensitive areas of tribal business.

Those in opposition said the issue appears to have opened a fissure on the reservation between some of the traditional people - such as Bullcreek and Blackbear, who were reared on the reservation and speak the Goshute tongue - and those who were raised away from Skull Valley.

"He's (Bear) not supporting the traditions of our people and the respect for Mother Earth," Bullcreek said.

Not surprisingly, the local chapter of the Sierra Club opposes the Skull Valley proposal. Cindy King, an activist in the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter, thinks the entire idea is ill-conceived.

"We support the Goshute tribal members that oppose the storage of nuclear waste on their reservation," King said.

Both sides say they worry how the lawsuit will affect tribal sovereignty, with slightly different takes on the same issue. Ohnogo Gaudadeh Devia sources say that by filing a lawsuit against the state, Bear has foolishly made the tribe vulnerable to the state having access to Skull Valley records.

Bear said he feels if Utah were to win this case, it would effectively set a precedent in which the states can regulate American Indian commerce on tribal lands.

The tribe has launched a PR campaign designed to assuage fears over the hazards of radiation. The Web site, framed in an American Indian motif, among other superlative statements, says radiation "makes our lives safer and healthier, more prosperous and convenient."

The state of Utah has 20 days to reply to the lawsuit.