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Americas Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 17:18 GMT
Toxic Utah
Skull Valley
Goshute Indian settlement in Skull Valley
The first Crossing Continents in this series visits Skull Valley, Utah, where a tiny Indian tribe is planning to take possession of 40,000 tons of high level nuclear waste to store on its reservation. As Julian Pettifer discovers there is very little anyone can do to stop them.

 Listen to this programme in full

For the Mormons who control most things in the State of Utah, the images of the winter Olympics were exactly what they wanted: snow-capped mountains, pristine, post-card-pretty and wholesome, bustling with healthy activities under a crisp cobalt-blue sky.

But that impression of Utah is not the whole story.

A nuclear dumping ground

Tooele County, on the shores of the Great Salt Lake has become a major dumping ground for hazardous waste of all kinds. To add to its inventory of industrial filth, there is now a plan to store there most of the high-grade nuclear waste from most of the nations nuclear power stations.

The dump is to be sited on an American Indian reservation called Skull Valley, the tribal homeland of the Goshutes. And it is incredible that such a desolate and starkly beautiful landscape could become the resting place for 40,000 tonnes of spent uranium rods stored in concrete and steel drums in the open air.

Toxic tour

Chip Ward is a long-time resident of Tooele County who has helped to found three citizen's action groups fighting environmental pollution. He was my guide on a toxic tour leading to Skull Valley. But on the way he gave me a quick rundown on the other local attractions.

Chip Wood
Chip Wood, environmental activist in the mountains of Utah

Pointing to snow-covered mounds on the valley floor, he informed me that this is a proving ground for biological and chemical warfare agents - much of it contaminated with unexploded ordinance and anthrax spores.

Also located in the desert is half the nation's stockpile of chemical weapons slowly being destroyed in two massive incinerators, another hazardous waste incinerator, huge hazardous and radioactive waste landfills, a bombing range and on the shores of the Great Salt Lake a magnesium plant that was, until recently, the largest toxic air polluter in the country.

Now, Chip told me there are three proposals that would bring much of the nations nuclear waste to Utah . In Skull Valley they plan to store what is perhaps the deadliest material made by man.

Why Utah?

The US Department of Energy is required by law to provide a permanent high-level, radio-active waste repository. This it has failed to do.

For the past 15 years the viability of creating such a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada has been intensively studied. At last, after spending $4 billion on research, President Bush has authorised the go-ahead. That does not mean it is going to happen.

Protective suits
Protection against accident at the chemical weapons incinerator in Tooele County

There is stiff opposition to the plan in Nevada and Congress also has to give its approval. Commissioning the facility is at least a decade away and in the meantime what happens to the waste?

In their desperation, a consortium of eight nuclear utilities called Private Fuel Storage (PFS) approached the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indians with their proposal: a "temporary" storage site on the reservation in return for a substantial but undisclosed sum of money.

The deal

At the time the approach was made, Leon Bear was the chairman of the tribal council and it was he who negotiated with PFS. Although he lives on the reservation, he spends much of this time in his Salt Lake City office, conferring with lawyers and executives of PFS.

The Goshutes were able to do the deal, despite fierce opposition from Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, because of the qualified sovereignty enjoyed by Native Americans over their reservation land.

Leon Bear
Leon Bear, Chairman of Skull Valley Band of Goshulte Indians

Leon Bear told me that he regarded the opposition of the Governor as utter hypocrisy. The State of Utah had surrounded the Goshutes with hazardous waste dumps without ever consulting them or paying them any compensation.

His deal with PFS, he told me, was the only way to safeguard the future of the tribe and to give them the services the State had failed to provide.

Dividing a community

Elsewhere on the reservation, I heard a very different story. The tribe is deeply divided over the nuclear dump and the PFS deal and over Leon Bear's leadership. My next call was on Sammy Blackbear. He and his supporters are fighting in the courts to have the existing lease with PFS overturned. They are also challenging Leon Bears leadership.

Sammy Blackbear claims that The Tribal General Council have never seen the full lease agreement, thus they could never have properly considered or approved it.

It was impossible to make out whether Sammy and his friends are against the nuclear facility in principle or that they are worried only about the distribution of the earnings.

The whole PFS affair has been deeply divisive and has split the little tribe into at least three quarrelsome groups.

The opposition

Utah's Governor Mike Leavitt has stated that high-level nuclear waste will be stored in Skull Valley "over my dead body" and has pushed through legislation to try to stop it. This legislation is being challenged in the courts by PFS.

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the Governor. In the wake of 11 September he is bound to oppose Skull Valley if only on security grounds. But when he tries to occupy the moral high ground, it is a different matter.

Entrance to Skull Valley
Entrance to Skull Valley

He clearly has no objection to nuclear waste in principle as his own administration has been negotiating with a company quaintly named "Envirocare" also wanting to dispose of nuclear waste in Utah's deserts.

The Goshutes can be forgiven for feeling there is one law for the white man and another for the Indians. And there is the final intractable problem of Native American sovereignty .

Who will prevail in this latest skirmish in the Indian Wars? The most likely winners, as I see it, are the lawyers

Toxic Utah: Thursday 28 February 2002 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio Four & repeated Monday 4 March 2002 at 2030 GMT

Reporter: Julian Pettifer
Producer: Caroline Pare
Editor: Maria Balinska

Quiz Julian Pettifer about storage of nuclear waste
Quiz Julian Pettifer

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