More than half of the Goshutes living on the Skull Valley Reservation have joined in a lawsuit to have the tribe's lease with a nuclear waste storage firm declared null and void.
Filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, the lawsuit charges that the Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Private Fuel Storage didn't follow the law or consider environmental factors when they approved and executed the lease.According to the lawsuit, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the 25-year lease just three days after it was signed in May 1997 even though it was aware of improprieties, "including indications of conflict of interest, lack of authority and/or unlawful acts."
The tribal leaders who signed the documents "acted without authority" because it was never approved by the Tribal General Council, the lawsuit said. Most of the council members have never even seen a copy of the lease, it added.
The lawsuit was filed as a "private attorney general action" in which the plaintiffs sue as parties in interest under the name of the United States of America. The plaintiffs include 25 tribal members -- including 15 of the 25 people who actually live on the Skull Valley reservation -- and the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation.
The Confederated Tribes has about 450 members and is based about 65 miles west of the Skull Valley reservation.
Attorney Duncan F. Steadman said his clients include tribal members and leaders who are "absolutely opposed" to the embattled project as well as members who are undecided but who want more information.
When concerned tribal members demanded to see a copy of the lease under the Freedom of Information Act, they were given an edited copy "with virtually every bit of essential information eliminated," Steadman said.
The plaintiffs contend that the lease is not a legal document because it was executed without following all the legally required steps, including environmental impact studies and the "careful involvement" of the Department of the Interior.
"Void means it was never there," Steadman said. "It's our position that there was never a lease."
Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of utility companies, has been working with members of the Goshute Tribe for several years to overcome a growing number of obstacles to the controversial project. Most recently, the Utah Legislature approved a bill transferring control of the roads around the reservation from the county to the state, effectively creating a "moat" around the proposed nuclear waste storage site.
Gov. Mike Leavitt has been one of the fiercest opponents of the project, saying he doesn't want Utah to become the nuclear dumping ground for the rest of the nation.
The federal lawsuit bolsters the growing opposition to the project by adding the voices of a significant number of the Goshutes themselves. It could also drag the issue through the federal courts for years.
The lawsuit said the lease will "directly involve, or effectively impair, the use of approximately one half of the reservation's easily accessible and commercially useful land area and have an enormous effect on the (plaintiffs) as well as other members of the tribe, its members and the residents of its reservation."