Weekly Wire
Salt Lake City Weekly Environmental Racism

By Karen Denton

We exhibit more than just a little bit of split personality when it comes to Native Americans. Are they citizens of sovereign nations within the borders of a larger country, or are they residents of rural ghettos?

Are they free to decide how to conduct their daily affairs on the reservations or are they subject to the whims of local, state and federal government interests?

What is the extent of their right to provide economic survival plans for the people living on the reservations?

The two latest examples of our mixed feelings are the state's opposition to the Goshute Indian Tribe's plans to deposit high-level nuclear waste on their reservation, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has quietly started shipping uranium from Nevada to the White Mesa band of the Ute Tribe. The Goshutes want the repository, the Utes don't.

Both tribes are scrambling to create sustainable livelihoods for their members, but in very different ways. The Skull Valley Band of Goshutes view the nuclear repository as a reasonably safe way to provide economic stability on the reservation. It offers both a way out of poverty, through decent paying jobs, and a chance to stay within the cultural networks rather than moving away to find work.

The contract has already been struck between the Goshutes and Private Fuels Storage, the consortium that wants to store high-level nuclear waste. All that remains is approval from the NRC to operate.

That doesn't mean every Goshute agrees with the plan. Many recently gathered in Salt Lake City to express their opposition. Gov. Mike Leavitt told the crowd he had serious concerns about the proposed site on Utah's border. In his perspective, that is an issue that transcends the reservation boundaries — several hundred thousand people are directly in harm's way if something goes terribly wrong.

The White Mesa Utes have pursued a different track. They are developing Avikian House, a religious and cultural center near Blanding for all Native Americans, a center that all citizens can visit and enjoy. Unfortunately, nearby is the old uranium mill and tailings pond that the Utes maintain were constructed on their ancestral burial ground.

The NRC isn't content with just that level of cultural desecration. It has decided that the old mill would be the perfect location to dump a load of uranium that has literally traveled the country from St. Louis to Lewiston, New York and, most recently, Nevada. So much for the Utes' desire to move beyond the uranium legacy of Southern Utah.

The Goshutes maintain that they are a sovereign nation and that Utah is welcome to express its opinion, but has no jurisdiction. Only the federal government, through the NRC, can determine the ultimate fate of a nuclear repository on Goshute lands.

But the Utes don't want the NRC attention, thank you very much. If they possess the same standing as the Goshutes, they should be able to tell the NRC to take the uranium elsewhere. The fact that one load of uranium has already rumbled through Moab and into Blanding demonstrates what little control the Utes have over the process.

That also indicates what little support either group can expect from the state for its economic plans of action. Environmental racism has been around a long time. This is simply the latest example in Utah.

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