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Toxic Utah: Goshutes divided over N-storage

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To get to the 18,000-acre Goshute Indian Reservation, head west from Salt Lake City on I-80 past the slag piles of the Kennecott smelter, then past the turn-off to the Deseret Chemical Depot, where the nation's deadliest chemical and biological weapons are stockpiled prior to incineration.

Keep heading west toward the MagCorp smokestack in the distance. You can't miss it. It's the one spewing more air pollution into the atmosphere than any other plant in North America.

About 45 miles west of downtown Salt Lake, turn south just before you get to two hazardous waste incinerators, a hazardous waste dump and a radioactive waste facility. You get to the reservation about 25 miles later, or about 10 miles before the Dugway Proving Ground, home of some of the nastiest byproducts of military weapons testing.

These days, the reservation boundary is marked only by a nondescript sign, a cattle guard across the road and a billboard inviting travelers to stop at the Pony Express Store, a two-pump pullout with sparsely stocked shelves. It is the only business on the reservation.

About 25 people live in this sun-baked desert where the only sound is the occasional scream of a car engine as it races along the arrow-straight highway to some place else.

A treaty more than 130 years ago exiled a small band of Goshute Indians out of sight and out of mind in one of the harshest landscapes imaginable, a place so desolate it was appropriately named Skull Valley.

"Our homeland was the Tooele Valley, but the pioneers kept pushing us west," said 44-year-old Leon Bear, just elected to his second term as chairman of the 112-member band, most of whom live in towns far removed from the reservation. "They pushed and pushed."

The Goshutes are now pushing back, tweaking the nose of Gov. Mike Leavitt and Utah's political establishment by entering into a lease agreement to allow a consortium of nuclear power utilities to store up to 40,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste in above-ground casks on tribal lands. Because the tribe has sovereignty over what happens on the reservation, the state has struggled mightily with how to stop the Goshutes from accepting the most lethal wastes known to man.

The proposal calls for temporary storage of the waste. But opponents believe once it's here, it'll stay.

Bear believes the wastes can and will be stored safely, and that the deal with Private Fuel Storage will spell economic prosperity on his impoverished reservation. The $3 billion to be spent building and operating the facility over the next 40 years will mean jobs for Goshutes, a handful of new homes, money for health services and a cultural center to help them preserve their disappearing heritage.

But the proposal has bitterly divided the tiny tribe.

Margene Bullcreek is leading a small group of "traditionalists" who do not want their ancestral homeland turned into a toxic waste dump.

"(Leon) is trying to convince himself that what he is doing is right," said the 54-year-old Bullcreek. "(But) this waste will destroy who we are."

The dispute is far more than a small Indian tribe going to war with a state bent on keeping the waste out. Rather, the lease agreement thrusts the Goshutes into the middle of a national debate over the nation's nuclear policy, which has failed for more than 50 years to come up with a plan to dispose of nuclear waste.

It seems the only ones who want the waste are the Skull Valley Goshutes, who say their reservation, already tucked between toxic waste dumps and incinerators, is not only a suitable site, but the only real option the tribe has for drumming up jobs.

The tribe has tried but failed to attract other businesses. A rocket test range that the Hercules Corporation used to test satellite launch rockets since 1975 now sits idle on the reservation, the company recently declining to renew its contract. In 1993, the tribe invested in a glass and aluminum recycling plant that went bankrupt.

Other prospects didn't pan out either.

Three years ago, Bear signed a lease with PFS, but he won't disclose the financial details. "Some things," he said, "are nobody's business."

National dilemma

What to do with nuclear waste has become a huge national problem, not just for the nation's nuclear power plants, which provide 20 percent of the country's power, but for the federal government that needs a place to dispose of waste from nuclear submarines, decommissioned nuclear missiles, nuclear testing laboratories (including two in Utah) and thousands of fuel assemblies from nuclear power plants in foreign countries.

In 1983, Congress passed legislation committing the government to have a permanent repository for the nuclear waste in place by Jan. 31, 1998. Now the government is saying a permanent facility will not be ready before 2010 at the earliest.

And no one inside the industry believes the government will meet that deadline, either.

Most agree a permanent nuclear waste facility will someday be built deep inside Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada. Scientific tests on the suitability of the site continue, but actual construction is years away.

Government officials recognized years ago they would not meet the storage deadline passed by Congress. In the early 1990s, the Department of Energy invited communities and Indian tribes to apply for grants to study the possibility of temporarily accepting nuclear waste pending completion of a permanent site.

The Goshutes were among two Indian tribes that responded. They accepted two grants totaling $300,000 to conduct studies and visit nuclear power plants around the world.

"Initially, it bothered us that they seemed to be targeting Indian reservations," said Bear, who at the time was tribal secretary. "Then we went through the studies and decided it was feasible to store it, that it was safe."

A general meeting of tribal members passed a resolution supporting the idea.

In 1997, the tribal council, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a consortium of nuclear power companies signed a 40-year lease agreement for temporary storage of nuclear waste, emphasizing to a wary public that the Skull Valley facility is a stop-gap only until the federal government completes a permanent facility. Even at a cost of $3 billion, it is money well spent if it avoids the shutdown of 10 to 20 nuclear reactors, says Scott Northard, PFS project manager.

The Skull Valley facility would cover 820 acres, most of which would be covered by rows of some 4,000 stainless steel canisters, each 18 feet tall, enclosing spent nuclear fuel rods transported to the site by rail from nuclear power plants around the nation.

If all goes as planned and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants the Goshutes and PFS a license to store the wastes, construction could begin by 2002. Not only will Goshutes be given preference in the construction jobs, but they will have first crack at 43 full-time jobs at the site, Bear said.

It's just the kind of economic development, Bear said, that will draw tribal members — most now living in Grantsville, Tooele and Salt Lake City — back to the reservation. And the financial windfall, he said, will help create the infrastructure that will give them something more than jobs.

Tribal survival

For most of the past century, few Goshutes have actually lived in Skull Valley. Most drifted to white communities where they could find jobs and their children could be taught in public schools.

Bear grew up playing in the arsenic-contaminated dirt of Stockton, just south of Tooele.

He worked awhile as a security guard at the missile test facility before moving permanently to the reservation in 1980 with his wife, a Paiute, where they raised their two daughters. He doesn't speak the Goshute language.

In contrast, Bullcreek and her family have always lived on the reservation. Her brother, the late Bert Wash, was the tribal chairman before Leon Bear's father, Richard, replaced him. Fluent in the Goshute tongue, she calls herself a traditionalist.

She feels that the large utility corporations are invading their small tribe because they don't recognize their traditions. "You don't have to live in teepees to be a traditionalist," she said.

Bullcreek and her neighbor, Sammy Blackbear, have been leading the fight against the nuclear waste storage facility since Bear signed the lease with Private Fuel Storage in 1997. They organized a small opposition group called Ohnogo Gaudadeh Devia (Goshute for "mountain community"), mustering support from other Native American tribes, environmentalists and politicos.

Their attorney, Duncan Steadman, has filed a federal action to force the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reverse its approval of the lease agreement. State officials have openly supported the lawsuit and the Goshute opposition, using state funds to foster the legal challenge.

"I felt I had to be outspoken or lose everything that has been passed down from generations," Bullcreek said. "The stories that tell why we became the people we are and how we should consider our animal life, our air, things that are sacred to us."

Bullcreek has a powerful ally on her side. Gov. Mike Leavitt is confident the state can block the waste through a series of legal and regulatory challenges to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process.

Leavitt is also looking to Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, chairman of the House Resources Committee, to exert congressional muscle to thwart PFS. And he considers President George W. Bush a friend who could feasibly block the deal through executive order.

But Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is warning the governor that there is little that can be done in Washington to block the nuclear waste dump, and that powerful political forces are at work to make it happen. And make no mistake about it, he said: If nuclear waste comes to Utah, it will be permanent.

"The state needs to do some clever, creative thinking about how to stop this," Hatch said.

Leavitt insists he is. He plans to twist the arm of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura to put the political stops on Minnesota-based PFS from shipping nuclear wastes from power plants there.

Closer to home, Leavitt is pushing the Utah Legislature to pass a law prohibiting Tooele County from providing electricity or water or other public services to the site. And he wants lawmakers to give him $1.6 million for a legal and public relations war on PFS.

And the war will be carried outside of Utah where accidents during rail transport of nuclear wastes could expose millions to the dangers of nuclear contamination.

Bear approaches the state's opposition with Zen-like indifference. Maybe the Goshutes win, maybe the state does. But if the proposal falls through, all is not lost.

"We're not dead in the water yet," he said. "We'll look for something else."

E-MAIL: spang@desnews.com ; donna@desnews.com