Environmental racism reversed

31 March 1999

In a situation dripping with irony, the charge of environmental racism is being raised in connection with a plan by Private Fuel Storage LLC of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, to build a temporary, above-ground storage site for spent nuclear fuel on land owned by the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians in Utah.

But unusually the Skull Valley Band is issuing the charge of racism at those who oppose the plan. The tribe wants to build the spent fuel storage facility on 840 acres of its 118 000-acre reservation, which is about 40 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

The proposed spent fuel storage facility is strongly opposed by Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, a Republican, who argues that Native Americans should not allow their land to become a ‘dumping ground,’ given their heritage as environmental stewards. Leavitt has instructed state agencies to purchase land surrounding the reservation in order to prevent shipments of spent fuel by road or rail to the reservation.

The Goshutes’ tribal chairman, Leon D Bear, says the barren reservation has little economic potential and called Leavitt’s plan blatantly racist.

“Just because we are Indians, why are they stereotyping us with the environmental thing?” he asked. “We don’t have any wildlife here that is anywhere near being endangered, much less becoming extinct. There is nothing out there to save.” The tribe points out that its reservation is already surrounded by hazardous activities which the state of Utah helped get licenses for, including the US Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds where chemical and biological warfare testing takes place; three hazardous waste dumps; an incinerator where the Army burns nerve gas materials; and the Tooele Army Depot, where nearly half of the US’s nerve gas agents are stored.

Spent nuclear fuel would remain on the site only until a permanent, underground repository is ready to receive it.

Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of eight US electric companies, has proposed building a 32-mile rail spur to the site. A recent study sponsored by the consortium identified two small faults at the proposed site, but concluded that the site is ‘safe and suitable’ for the storage of spent nuclear fuel.

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