"An Extreme and Solemn Relationship with the Land"

Activists and Indian Tribes Battle a Radioactive Waste Dump in the Mojave Desert

by Philip M. Klasky

At dawn, a light brown school bus rumbles down a washboard road toward the Old Woman Mountains. The sky awakens to gauzy clouds promising respite from the bristling summer morning in the Mojave desert. The Spirit Runners bounce in their seats and yell in surprise as the bus hits a dip. A young girl points to a red-tailed hawk gathering the wind. The bird follows the runners on its path in the air. The front seats are filled with boxes of Gatorade and large orange water coolers. Sturdy legs criss-cross the aisles as the runners stretch. Ron Van Fleet of the Fort Mojave Indian tribe climbs to the front of the bus. He checks his watch, calculating the time it will take to run to where the tribal leaders are meeting at a cleared patch of land, the site of a proposed nuclear waste dump. Van Fleet encourages the runners to stretch well and then he calls out through the bus, "Who are we?" The runners shout in unison, "We are Mojave!" Then he asks, "Why are we running?" "To save Ward Valley!" "What do we do while we are running?" They answer, fists high, "We pray!"

The runners take their positions, the youngest in front, and begin their 27 mile relay with cheers. The air is beginning to heat up with the strong scent of creosote. The lead runner holds a staff and a scroll decorated with ribbons and feathers. The sun is rising wrapped in a shawl of cirrus clouds. Down the road toward the gathering of Indian leaders, a Spirit Runner delivers the resolution to another's outstretched hand. The next runner carries the feathered message with renewed effort.

On July 8, 1995, the five lower Colorado River Indian Tribes forming the Colorado River Native Nations Alliance signed a joint resolution declaring their opposition to a proposed radioactive dump at Ward Valley, California, near the town of Needles. In the resolution, the Tribes state that they "are the Indigenous People of this region and hold an extreme and solemn relationship with the Land, Animals and Water... ."

The dump project has become the focus of a national debate on radioactive waste disposal and represents a confluence of related issues including the protection of endangered species, the preservation of wilderness, American Indian land and water rights, cultural values and sovereignty for Indian nations.

Ward Valley is a wide, tilting valley of creosote and cholla cactus. This pristine part of the Mojave desert supports populations of red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, sidewinders and desert tortoises. In spring, the washes are carpeted with white chicory, purple chia and yellow dandelion and the yucca trees wear milky white flowers on spear-like stalks.

The valley, in California's eastern Mojave Desert, is surrounded by eight designated Bureau of Land Management Wil- derness Areas. Unique geological formations and impressive natural features can be found in the protected canyons of the Old Woman Mountains. Volcanic fins slice through ancient rock in the Stepladder Mountains and the Bigelow Cactus Garden covers acres of desert foothills.

Seven miles from the proposed dump site is the eastern boundary of the Mojave National Preserve. The park contains an unparalleled range of desert ecosystems: the towering Kelso Sand Dunes; the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world; lush riparian canyons, and the juniper-pion woodlands of the New York Mountains.

The Colorado River, Ward Valley, Chemehuevi Valley, the Turtle Mountains, Spirit Mountain and the Old Woman Mountains encircle an area considered sacred by the lower Colorado River Indian tribes. Spirit Mountain is the place of origin for the People by the River. Abundant petroglyphs cover the sun-tarnished rocks at the entrance to Grapevine Canyon. Left by resident and transient tribes, they tell of hunting, travels and territories. At an ancient site in the Old Woman Mountains, petroglyphs depicting falcons and dancers are carved into the dark red stone.

A wide water course traverses Ward Valley, supporting a community of wildlife including the long-eared owl, horned toad, golden eagle, sidewinder rattlesnake, kit fox, tarantula and kangaroo rat. Islands of mesquite and willow provide food and cover. Mountain sheep secret the steep rocky terrain overlooking Ward Valley and ravens and red-tailed hawks are common.

The nuclear industry and officials within the state and federal government are planning to bury long-lasting and highly dangerous wastes from nuclear power reactors in shallow, unlined trenches right above an aquifer, 18 miles from the Colorado River, next to and upriver from the Indian lands.

Ward Valley would receive a mixed brew of low-level radioactive wastes from hospitals, biotech industry, academia and nuclear utilities. Department of Energy statistics show that 80% of the wastes slated for Ward Valley would come from commercial nuclear power reactors: less than 1% would come from medical and industrial sources.

A careful analysis of the so-called "low-level" radioactive waste stream exposes the power behind the push for the dump. Proponents have spent millions on public relations campaigns, and corporate giants such as Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison have lobbied heavily for the Ward Valley dump in order to secure an inexpensive way of getting rid of wastes generated at their power plant sites.

The term "low-level wastes," as defined by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is misleading, conjuring the image of short-lived and benign radioactive wastes. In this country, nuclear materials defined as low-level include virtually all of the radioactive elements found in the high-level waste stream, and can even be more dangerous than some wastes classified as high-level. Cesium and strontium, which remain deadly for as long as 300 years, and plutonium, toxic for 250,000 years, are called high-level wastes when they are in the reactor core. Once these same materials are sifted out into filters they are then classified as low-level wastes.

Waste materials are defined solely by the process which produced them, not by their danger. In other countries, much of what we call low-level waste is categorized as intermediate or high-level waste depending on its toxicity and longevity.

Ward Valley is on federal land administered by the Department of the Interior, which according to federal law has a "fiduciary obligation" or trust responsibility to protect American Indian lands and resources. The lower Colorado River Indian tribes depend on the Colorado River for drinking water and agriculture. The tribes have a deep spiritual and historical connection with the land and the river. The Colorado River, an ancient river tamed by dams, is an integral part of the cultural identity of the tribes.

The land at Ward Valley must be transferred to the State of California before the dump can be built since the State would license the dump. Governor Wilson's administration has selected a notorious waste management firm, US Ecology (formerly Nuclear Engineering Corporation), as the dump contractor. US Ecology has left a trail of leaking dumps and litigation across the country. Its nuclear dumps at Sheffield, Illinois, Maxey Flats, KY, Richland, WA and Beatty, NV are leaking dangerous radioactive materials into the surrounding ecosystem. Two of its toxic waste dumps are Superfund sites.

Lower Colorado River Indian Tribes have made numerous attempts over the last ten years to contact the Department of the Interior to express their concerns about the threat to cultural and natural resources and but their protests and requests for a meeting with the Secretary have been ignored.

The desert tortoise, a species that has remained relatively unchanged for the last 65 million years, has been a central figure in Indian culture in the Southwest and has a particular importance for the lower Colorado River Indian tribes. Ward Valley has long been recognized by biologists as an essential habitat for the species. Due to assaults on its habitat by mining, grazing, off-road vehicle use and other human impacts, the tortoise has lost half its population in the last several years and is in danger of extinction. In 1991, the desert tortoise was added to the federal endangered species list.

Three years ago, in a meeting with a group of activists, Llewellyn Barrackman, Vice-Chairman of the Fort Mojave Tribe, told the group that Ward Valley was "headquarters" for the desert tortoise. This meeting was an inquiry into protections afforded the tortoise under the law. The tortoise had been listed as a threatened species, but the government had failed to designate critical habitat for the species.

In 1994, in response to a lawsuit by environmental groups, including the Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition and Greenpeace, and the Fort Mojave and Chemehuevi Indian Tribes, the Department of the Interior designated Ward Valley as critical habitat. In its 1994 Recovery Plan for the Desert Tortoise, the US Fish and Wildlife Service stated that "currently the largest and most robust population of desert tortoises remaining within the geographic range is found in portions of the Ward and Chemehuevi valleys." Ward Valley is not just critical habitat, it is the best critical habitat left for a vulnerable species.

A year ago, three scientists with the United States Geological Survey warned Secretary Babbitt that radioactive waste buried at Ward Valley could reach the aquifer below and eventually migrate to the Colorado River. When they gave the report to Babbitt he responded by trying to discredit them. The geologists then submitted their report to Senator Barbara Boxer who publicly accused Babbitt of a cover-up. This prompted Babbitt to direct the National Academy of Sciences (nas) to review the issue. But the panel selected to analyze potential threats to the Colorado River and the desert tortoise was chosen from a group of scientists with conflicts of interest, given their association with corporations and government institutions favorable to shallow land burial of nuclear wastes.

After a long delay and dissension in their ranks, the nas panel reported that it was "highly unlikely" that radioactive wastes buried at the dump site would contaminate the Colorado River. The panel also stated that the data used to determine the migration rates of radionuclides in arid environments was incomplete. The panel recommended that additional tests be conducted to determine the potential for contamination of the aquifer and Colorado River but allowed the tests to be undertaken after the dump is built.

The NAS panel agreed with biologists that Ward Valley is some of the very best tortoise habitat, that moving the tortoises from the site would be risky and that moving them to another area may harm the recipient population. Amazingly, the report recommended sacrificing the tortoises, proposing an administrative maneuver which classifies the tortoises as "incidental take," or circumstantial casualties of the dump project.

At public hearings, the nas panel limited the testimony of dump opponents and ignored statements by tribal representatives concerned about the threat the nuclear dump posed for the tribes.

Ward Valley could become a national nuclear dump, accepting wastes from the country's aging commercial reactors. The federal land transfer is for 1,000 acres, ample room to expand from the originally proposed 90 acre site. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has unilateral "emergency access powers" to direct waste from anywhere in the country to any open dump. California is currently poised to accept waste from a regional compact of states including Arizona, North Dakota and South Dakota, but compact commissioners, gubernatorial appointees, have already voted to keep the option of accepting out-of-compact waste. Every commercial nuclear landfill has served as a national repository, and every one has leaked.

All the relay runners run the last mile together, in formation. A boy of ten leads the group as they are welcomed by family and friends, a group of activists, a few reporters and the leaders of the five lower Colorado River Indian tribes. The resolution, carried the length of the run, is delivered to the leaders who read the document to the crowd before signing copies to be sent to President Clinton and Secretary Babbitt. The resolution is accompanied by a letter requesting a meeting, nation to nation, with the country's leaders.

For the Tribes, the proposed dump is a direct attack against their culture, their future and their land, and an example of one nation attempting to bury its poisons in another nation's soil. The Tribes have had a long and difficult relationship with the United States. Indian nations have been targeted by the nuclear industry and the federal government as repositories for radioactive waste.

The dump would degrade property values, discourage business and threaten the health and peace of mind of the residents of the small town of Needles. For wilderness advocates and anti- nuclear activists, a shallow grave for nuclear wastes in pristine desert represents an ill-fated move toward the contamination of invaluable resources. The commitment to protect Ward Valley is basic and profound for people who have a solemn relationship with the land.

Philip M. Klasky is a writer, activist, teacher and researcher and co-director of the Bay Area Nuclear (ban) Waste Coalition.