Our Lands Will Be a Killing Field for a Hundred Thousand Years
by Rob Robinson

Tribal Vice-Chair Sammy Blackbear, of the Skull Valley Goshute Band, along with Tribal Chair Marlinda Moon and Recording Secretary Miranda Wash are under indictment by the Salt Lake City U.S. Attorney on charges stemming from their opposition to a lease permitting Private Fuel Storage (PFS) to store 40,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste in Skull Valley, Utah. Their trial date has been set at Jan. 13.

What follows is an edited excerpt of an interview conducted Dec. l7-18 at a benefit for Sammy Blackbear's legal defense; we spoke with Sammy Blackbear (SB), Kevin Kamps (KK), Nuclear Waste Specialist with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and radio and benefit host, J. Winter Nightwolf (JWN). The interview aired on the J. Winter Nightwolf show Dec. 19.

Robinson: J. Winter Nightwolf, please tell us about the benefit.

JWN: I'm asking my listeners to contribute to Sammy Blackbear's legal defense. Martha Redbone, Jeff Ball and Lakota Longwalker all came to D.C. to perform. There are about 140 Skull Valley Goshutes, so Sammy has no financial base.

And the waste has to be transported along rail lines through my community in Washington, D.C. We need to keep Sammy out of prison, so he can keep PFS off Goshute lands. Every American concerned about radioactive waste dumps should contribute to his legal defense.

Robinson: Sammy, explain the nuclear power industry's fascination with tribal lands for storage of high-level radioactive waste.

SB: Think of the most lethal carcinogen imaginable... then hold that thought a hundred thousand years. No community wants this godawful stuff; if they did PFS would be building "Deadly Carcinogens" themeparks. Indians that live on reservations are politically and economically vulnerable.

Robinson: Politically vulnerable as in…

SB: Voters are less likely to care if this hellish waste is threatening the environment in some tribal backwater. Small tribes an economically vulnerable because they have no economic base and no jobs, so PPS is betting that tribal officials driven by desperation or greed will accept cash for radioactive waste.

Robinson: And tribal sovereignty...

SB: …may save companies like PFS a billion dollars here or there because they don't have to comply with state and local regulations.

Robinson: Kevin, is there a safe way to deal with the spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants?

KK: Not really. And the nuclear industry will double and then treble the quantity of high-level radioactive waste over the next couple of decades. If you have the stuff, you should store it on site in fortified bunkers that are safeguarded against hazards like earthquakes, floods and terrorist attack, obviously.

Robinson: But that's not what PFS is proposing at Skull Valley, is it?

SB: Nope, they plan to store it in drums above ground, like cans of tuna fish at the supermarket. That's why my people want no part of this deal; there will be no cleanup after an accident in aisle 11. Our lands will become a killing field for a hundred thousand years.

Robinson: It sounds like transporting high-level radioactive waste is a really bad idea...

KK: You move the stuff around, you exponentially increase the risk of an accident. It's arguably the most deadly stuff humans have created; exposure to it kills in minutes. An accidental release of this stuff is potentially catastrophic.

Robinson: Tribes in Nevada and Utah are disproportionately exposed to nuclear hazards caused by nuclear weapons testing, uranium mining and storage of nuclear waste. What does being downwind or downstream from these sites mean healthwise?

KK: A wide spectrum of incidences of birth defects and disease. The federal government has acknowledged 15,000 cancer deaths attributable to radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing alone. Thyroid cancer, for example, has plagued Shivwits Paiutes in Utah, not unlike that observed among Ukrainian children after the Chernobyl reactor explosion. Non-tribal residents in St. George, Utah, helped bring pressure to enact federal legislation providing compensation for downwinders afflicted by nuclear fallout.

Robinson: Tell us about the role of the BIA.

SB: In 1997, PFS filed an application with the BIA to lease land in Skull Valley to store 40,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste.

Robinson: And the BIA approved the lease...

SB: Three days after PFS made their filing.

Robinson: Three days? Wouldn’t they have to do an environmental impact study, which takes…

KK: An EIS takes many, many months.

Robinson: But the BIA approved the lease for 40,000 metric tons of waste in three days?

SB: Well, to be fair, the BIA says they haven't formally approved the lease, but they authorized PFS to begin paying the self-appointed Tribal Chair, Leon Bear, for the lease.

Robinson: And what happened in those three days?

SB: Leon Bear passed a series of about thirty resolutions suspending all democratic processes and preventing any disclosure of the terms and conditions of the agreement with PFS.

Robinson: Should I ask "What was the big hurry?"

SB: We learned that PFS had promised jurisdictions in which their nuclear plants were located that the radioactive waste would be stored in Skull Valley by 2003. Of course, the BIA assured us the deal was that the storage at Skull Valley was only temporary and the waste would be transported to Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, no problem. However, the D.C. Court of Appeals recently ruled that Yucca Mountain might not be taking radioactive waste, since the existing federal environmental regulations for such storage are insufficient.

Robinson: It sounds like the BIA is “pimping" for the nuclear power industry?

SB: Believe it or not, you may be understating the case. If you look at the historical role of the BIA, their goal has always been the disassembling of tribal lands, cultures and traditions.

Robinson: Why are you being indicted?

SB: Mr. Bear, in collusion with the BIA, conducted illegal elections for the Tribal Council and re-elected himself. In response, the full tribal body conducted proper tribal elections and reinstituted due processes. We then went to the bank with a power of attorney, seized the bank accounts that held tribal funds and paid bills for legal fees owed by the tribe.

So, I have been indicted along with our Tribal Chair, Marlinda Moon, and Secretary Miranda Wash. The charges are fraud, embezzlement and bank fraud: we're looking at many years in prison if we're found guilty.

Robinson: And yet Leon Bear has been receiving money from PFS in conjunction with a deal that is being kept secret from the tribe?

SE: That's right. Estimates of the funds he has received are into the millions of dollars. One of the reasons we needed control of our tribal accounts is to make it clear that the tribe is not receiving and spending PFS funds. But, yeah, he's been on a spending spree that includes vehicles, property-- you name it.

Robinson: But the radioactive waste is not yet on Goshute lands?

SB: Not. yet.

Robinson: What is the status of the lease?

KK: We hear that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Licensing Board may vote to approve a license to store the waste on the site in January of 2005.

Robinson: How independent is this body?

SB: It's run by the nuclear power industry. Look, we're in possession of a letter from PFS to the licensing board indicating that approval of this lease will save them $7.8 billion.

KK: The NRC served as lead agency on the EIS for the PFS lease; in their finding, they claimed that the tribe was being paid so handsomely that environmental justice violations did not apply.

When another tribal member, Margene Bullcreek, filed an environmental justice contention that the tribe didn't want the money, hadn't seen a penny of it and was denied access to the deal between Leon Bear and PFS, the commissioners of the NRC prevented their own Licensing Board from hearing her complaint.

President Clinton issued an Executive Order requiring all federal agency decision making to comply with environmental justice principles; the NRC maintains that they are a Commission, not an Agency, therefore exempt!

Robinson: What happens if they approve the license?

KK: The state of Utah says they will appeal any approval of this license to the NRC commissioners and, if necessary, to federal court.

Robinson: Jay, you invited the Utah Congressional delegation to support the benefit for Sammy Blackbear, isn't that right?

JWN: Both senators and all three representatives were invited to attend the event, or at least make a contribution. Senators Hatch and Bennett declined the invitation and refused to make a donation. So did representatives Bishop and Cannon; the young woman from Matheson's office-- Utah's lone democrat--hung up on me.

SB: At home, in Utah, our congressmen are "anti-nuclear." But when they're here in Washington, they're raising money and the nuclear power industry is always a willing contributor. When we scrutinized their campaign contributors, we always found the nuclear power industry well represented.

Robinson: In the meantime, Sammy, you've got to defend yourself at a cost of, what?

SB: It's gonna cost us $60,000-$80,000. Plus, the judge in Denver's 10th Circuit Court has told us the tribe must update its claims against the BIA, or return to the BIA for administrative relief-- the government agency that railroaded this lease with PFS and is now trying to put the democratically elected tribal leadership in prison.

Robinson: Nightwolf, you seem to be a "voice crying in the wilderness" on this issue.

JWN: First, Sammy is fighting for all of us; if he wins, we all win. Second, the involvement of the BIA sets a precedent that tells us the Bush administration plans to go after the tribes.

Third, mainstream media refuses to cover Native Americans generally and this issue, in particular, which means they will not hold the BIA or the government accountable for fulfilling their statutory responsibilities to us. My station, WPFW (89.3 FM in Washington, D.C.) is part of the Pacifica network, our mission is to be a voice for the voiceless.

Robinson: I'm trying to get a handle on the 40,000 metric tons of radioactive waste.

KK: There are about 50,000 metric tons of the stuff in the country and they want to put 40,000 of that in Skull Valley, so it's like--

SB: 4 out of every 5 tons of this radioactive waste will be stored on my tribe's lands.

Robinson: Isn't this a textbook definition of--

KK: Environmental racism.

SB: Or genocide. When I was a kid my whole family had to travel to Idaho to work the potato crop just to feed everyone. I raised my own kids in Skull Valley, but they left home to find jobs. We accept the fact that we have to struggle to keep out families together, to preserve our language and our culture.

But here you have the Nuclear Power Industry, Interior and the Justice Department arrayed against 140 Goshutes. We're not asking you to support Marlinda and Sammy and Miranda, we're asking for a fighting chance to preserve our way of life.

NFIC readers are encouraged to direct your tax-deductible contributions for Sammy Blackbear made payable to: The Environmental Justice Foundation, 42 East, 300 North, #1, Provo, UT 84606; Phone: 801.427.4610; E-Mail.

J. Winter Nightwolf's program airs Sunday evenings at 8:00 pm (EST) on WPFW 89.3 fm. To listen via the internet, Winter Nightwolf's program.

©News From Indian Country January 10, 2005