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Waste merchants intentionally poison natives

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Environmental Racism and Nuclear Development

(March 28, 1993) There are thousands who have suffered the consequences of highly dangerous industries operating in and near Indian communities. Angry tribal leaders accuse industry and the military of economic and environmental racism for devastating their land and their people.

Valerie Taliman

They say that calculated decisions were made that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Native people - people that corporate and government officials deemed expendable.

The intentional poisoning of Native people has been going on for a long time. It can be traced back to the small-pox infected blankets that the US Cavalry distributed to Indian prisoners of war. It continued through the decades in the form of military and industrial development that polluted Indian lands and water supplies.

Today the poisonous deals come in slick packages from friendly waste merchants or from David Leroy, who heads the Office of US Nuclear Waste Negotiations.

Leroy has been trying to sell tribal leaders a deal to set aside 450-acre parcels of Native lands for federal storage of radioactive waste from the nation's 110 nuclear plants [the so-called Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) facility for spent reactor fuel rods].

In return for poison, Leroy holds out prospects of more federal money for health care, education and other economic benefits that financially strapped tribes critically need. It is a strategy that some tribal leaders call "economic blackmail."

Leroy mailed letters to more than 65 tribal leaders nationally and has lobbied at major Indian gatherings such as the National Congress of American Indians attended by 1500 delegates.

So far, only the Mascalero Apache tribe in New Mexico has received grant money to study the prospect of a nuclear waste facility on the reservation [US$100,000 to allow a feasibility study and another $200,000 for "public education"]. It is a prospect that has caused much controversy among tribal members, many of whom oppose it.

Waste deals disguised as "economic development"

This recent round of waste proposals comes on the heels of scores of proposals from waste disposal operators who have deliberately targeted Indian lands for waste incinerators and landfills.

In the last two years alone, more than 50 tribes from Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska, California, New York, Nevada, Utah, South Dakota, Washington, Wyoming and Florida have been approached by waste merchants seeking deals on Native lands where state regulations do not apply and there is less red tape governing toxic waste incinerators and landfills.

Toxic waste deals are often disguised as "economic development" projects. Waste companies promise million-dollar deals to people who often live in economically depressed communities that seldom attract offers of this magnitude.

In exchange for millions, waste companies propose to build high-level waste incinerators and massive dumps to store tons of toxic waste shipped in from all over the nation.

Waste merchants also recognize the political and economic vulnerability of Native nations. Because affluent communities have the money and political power to ban waste sites from their neighborhoods, most landfills, incinerators and toxic dumps are built near low-income communities of color, many near Indian lands.

Unless a tribe has existing environmental regulations, toxic waste falls under the jurisdiction of federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laws that are often less stringent than those of states.

Native leaders say the lax and distant enforcement exercised by the EPA is not enough to protect tribes from companies that are trying to take advantage of the sovereign status of Native people.

"Environmental laws do not protect our people," said Gail Small, a North Cheyenne attorney and activist. "With less than four percent of our original land base left, we refuse to accept the deliberate targeting of our land for white America's trash and poison's."

Encroaching on the Western Shoshone

That feeling is shared by the Western Shoshone Nation whose land in Nevada was taken by the government to build the Nevada Test Site. The military has exploded more than 700 nuclear bombs since 1951 including 100 above-ground blasts that were allowed until 1963. Although the Treaty of Ruby Valley never ceded lands to the US, providing only permission for settlers to pass through Shoshone land, the federal government ignored the treaty and took more than 800,000 acres for weapons testing.

The Department of Defense (DOD) now uses that land to conduct both underground nuclear tests and ariel bombing at adjacent Nellis Air Force Gunnery Range and the Tonopah Test Range. These tests expose millions of citizens in a five-state surrounding area to radiation.

"We are the most bombed nation in the world," William Rosse, Sr. proclaims at the many environmental gatherings he attends. "We've had more than our share of radiation," says Ros-se. "Now they want to put the Yucca Mountain repository on our lands."

The proposed high-level nuclear waste repository would create cavities and tunnels spreading over 1500 acres inside the Yucca Mountain to store 70,000 metric tons of deadly nuclear waste. An additional 150 surface acres would be used to house administrative and warehouse facilities. The estimated price tag to taxpayers so far is $15 billion.

The repository is intended to keep nuclear waste "safe" for 10,000 years by placing steel canisters filled with the most deadly substances on the planet in tunnels up to 115 miles long.

If approved, the repository would operate from 2003 to 2053, taking in nuclear waste from nuclear waste sites throughout the nation.

Only five states would not be impacted by the transportation of high-level radioactive waste, causing many state and local emergency response teams to worry about the prospect of accidents.

With up to 4000 shipments of radioactive waste crossing the nation annually, trucking industry statistics reveal that up to 50 accidents per year could occur during the 30-year period that nuclear waste would stream to Yucca Mountain.

Fearing the dangers posed, some tribal leaders have called for a ban on the transportation of hazardous waste through their reservations and a handful of tribes have outlawed hazardous waste operations.

Source: Groundwork (via GreenNet, gn:nuc.facilities, 17 Oct. 1992). Groundwork can be reached at PO Box 14141, San Francisco CA 94114, USA.
Contacts: Jan Stevens, Native American Energy Network, PO Box 554, Davenport OK 74026, US
tel: +1 918-968-2583; fax: 918-968-3887
Ian Zabarti, Western Shoshone National Council, General Delivery, Crescent Valley NV 89821; tel:+1 702-863-0332