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WILL PROJECT DISTURB BURIAL GROUNDS?

Economics and pollution aside, Indians in southeastern Utah say they are troubled most about a potential nuclear disposal site in their midst by what they consider the white man's traditional disregard for their culture.

"I guess you have to be an Indian to feel why we are opposed to it," Blanding resident and Navajo Tribe member Lula Katso told the state Radiation Control Board Friday. "Our main concern is our sacred burial grounds. All our ancestors are everywhere."We respect cemeteries. That's why we don't bother yours," she said.

At the heart of the matter is a license amendment Denver-based Energy Fuels has requested from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The license amendment would allow the company to accept and dispose of radioactive material at the White Mesa Mill near Blanding, which is uphill from a Ute reservation.

In addition to disturbing sacred ground, Indians in the region between Blanding and Monticello feel the disposal site would create safety problems stemming from increased truck traffic around the dump, as well as endanger lives by contaminating groundwater. The Indians asked the board last month to persuade the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to deny Energy Fuels' license amendment.

At that time, however, the board deferred action until Friday's special meeting. And instead of taking a stand on the issue Friday, the board decided to alert the commission of the Indians' concerns, and urge it to give them the maximum opportunity for public involvement.

"We have taken action now, but we sure don't have any closure yet," board chairman Jess McKenzie said.

Indeed. Because both sides of the issue - the Indians and Energy Fuels - are deeply committed to their causes, the dispute likely won't be resolved soon.

For starters, Energy Fuels representative Rick VanHorn asserts the White Mesa Mill is the best possible site for the dump, and that his company has taken efforts to make sure the environment will not be adversely affected by it.

"We followed every rule, did everything we possibly could. We did not glaze over this thing," he said.

Yet Cullen Battle, an attorney for Norman Begay (who is a member of the White Mesa Tribe), said the environmental impact statement generated by Energy Fuels "constitutes a gross underestimation of the significance" of archaeological sites that he says stand to be destroyed by the project.

Begay has been granted a hearing with the commission Sept. 22 to determine whether he has a standing in his opposition to the nuclear-waste site.

VanHorn, however, said the company does not currently plan extra construction but will use existing cells at the site for the nuclear waste disposal. If the company were to build more cells, those would have to be approved by the commission, he said.

Negating the risk of water contamination, VanHorn said, the disposal cells are also separated by thousands of feet from the groundwater. Further, he noted Energy Fuels can guarantee 38 new jobs to last the next three years if the company is allowed to operate the dump.

Still, Indians don't believe their beloved land will escape unscathed.

"The Earth is for us to keep clean, to live on," said Pearl Wells, Blanding. "It kind of hurts to feel that things are being taken from you. What's going to happen if we continue dumping trash on land that was beautiful?"