Tribe files suit to protect nuclear investment
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APRIL 20, 2001

Calling recently enacted Utah state laws a threat to tribal sovereignty and economic freedom, the Skull Valley Band of Goshute and a group of private companies who want to store high-level nuclear waste on the tribe's reservation asked a federal court on Thursday to declare them unconstitutional.

"When the state passes these laws, they target Skull Valley," said Chairman Leon Bear. "They don't want Skull Valley to have any economic development. They have decided to pass these laws so the tribe can't do anything on the reservation."

What the tribe and Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of eight private utilities, want to do is controversial, of course. The tiny tribe has entered in an agreement to store up to 40,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste on a facility in northwestern Utah.

Bear sees the project as a way to provide for the basic needs of tribal members and their families, just 25 of whom live on the 18,000-acre reservation. The nearest Indian Health Service clinic is more than 200 miles away, he points out, and the band has to rely on nearby counties for the kinds of police, fire, and emergency services other tribes run for themselves.

The state, while claiming sympathy with the tribe and the need for development, has a different view. In a legal and political campaign stretching all the way up to Governor Mike Leavitt, the state has been trying to thwart the project.

As part of the effort, Leavitt last month signed one bill banning high-level waste altogether. Another places economic and other restrictions on businesses who work with the tribe and PFS and prohibits nearby Toole County from providing any services to the project.

Leavitt has also created a special office to oppose high-level waste, dedicating emergency tax dollars to the effort and asking the Legislature to fund it with more.

The actions, say tribe and PFS, have forced the partners into filing yesterday's lawsuit. They are asking a federal judge to prevent Utah officials from enforcing them and to declare them unconstitutional.

Despite the state's opposition, Bear says Utah officials have never provided the tribe with any scientific information showing the project would be unsafe. "We've asked the state of Utah to provide that information, but all we get is rhetoric," he said.

The federal government has ultimate authority over the project. So far, two agencies have given it positive preliminary reviews, although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board doesn't foresee making a final decision until April 2002.

As for the tribe, Bear said "we know that this storage facility is benign."

State officials yesterday said the lawsuit was expected and predicted victory in court.

"We intend to vigorously defend the laws in court," said Assistant Attorney General Phil Pugsley. Yesterday's filing is being reviewed by the Attorney General's office, he said.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 requires the Department of Energy to accept spent fuel from utilities like PFS, creating the need for a facility to store the waste. Tribes and citizens in Nevada oppose construction of Yucca Mountain, a DOE site that would store waste.

Relevant Links:
Utah Office of High Level Nuclear Waste Opposition -
Private Fuel Storage Facility Application, Nuclear Regulatory Commission -
Private Fuel Storage -
The Skull Valley Goshutes -

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