graphic by Tom LakeMad Max might someday find a home in Skull Valley, a pre-apocalyptic chunk of semi-arid land in Tooele County, Utah, south of the Great Salt Lake. Near the reservation that's home to 25 of the 120 or so members of the Skull valley band of Goshute Indians is the Dugway Proving Ground, where until 1969, the military conducted open-air testing of chemical and biological weapons. In August, Dugway began burning its stockpile. Tooele is also home to two commercial hazardous-waste incinerators, one hazardous-waste dump and one low-level radiation dump. On the reservation itself, a private company test-burns rocket motors under a deal with tribe members.
And then there are the sheep carcasses.
Nearly 30 years ago, 6,000 sheep reportedly died after being exposed to nerve gas. The details are a bit hazy due to an X-Files-type reluctance on the part of the ,military to admit to just what went on at Dugway. Initially, the military blamed the mass deaths on pesticide poisoning, but an autopsy reportedly revealed a nerve agent. The Goshute had to broker a deal with the U.S. Department of Defense to disinter the sheep bodies. According to Utah state officials, the military has neither confirmed nor denied the nerve-gas accident. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently has undertaken what is terms the "Tooele County Sheep Project" to clean up the contaminated site.
So the band won't exactly be despoiling Eden if it is successful in its bid to become a temporary storage facility for spent nuclear fuel. Eleven nuclear utilities*, led by Minnesota's own Northern States Power, are angling for about 110 of the reservation's 17.444 acres of land. Waste that is pilling up at the utilities would be stored at the reservation site until the federal government honors its legal obligation to accept the fuel.
Knowing how temporary waste sites tend to evolve into permanent ones, Utah state officials, led by Gov. Mike Leavitt, vow to fight the introduction of high-level radioactive waste into their state.
"The governor has actually said, "Over my dead body,'" says Bill Sinclair, director of the Division of Radiation Control for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Utah already bears more that its fair load of the scary stuff or the rest of the country, Sinclair says. "It's a waste-equity issue," he says, as he ticks off the list of hazardous sites located in Tooele County. Utah, he notes, has no nuclear power plants of its own.
But the issue of the Goshute tribal sovereignty may mean that Utah state officials will have little choice. Scott Northard, project manager for NSP, says that the utilities plan to begin the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's formal siting process this summer. Sinclair says state officials intend to intervene in the process and to invoke state laws against this type of arrangement. Due to reservation sovereignty, however, the Skull Valley site may be as immune from Utah's laws on the matter as would another country.
NSP and the gang tried and failed to get a similar deal for mid-term storage on the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico. Sinclair is hopeful that the Skull Valley deal also will fall through. But in the case of the Mescalero Indians, local and state opposition weren't successful in breaking off negotiations; the tribe had a collective change of heart, reportedly after an anti-nuke scolding by tribal elders, and voted to reject the plan.
The tiny Skull Valley band is run by one family. Moreover, spreading the money between so few people may be an irresistible incentive. The 2,500 member Mescalero tribe turned down a reported $250 million in compensation and benefits. If the Skull Valley band is offered the same financial package, it would work out to more than $2 million per member.
The fear that storage in Utah could become permanent is well-founded. The chosen federal sites at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, would need to be ready by 1998 to comply with the law. But the Yucca Mountain site has yet to progress beyond grad students taking soil samples. The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, estimates the project to be 12 years behind schedule. The Yucca Mountain site, which is not hampered by sovereignty issues, also faces local opposition as well as congressional and presidential approval. All nuclear utilities continue to pay into a fund that will eventually pay for the federal repository.
northard contents that NSP wants to move the waste away from plants like Red Wing's Prairie Island and into the federal repository as soon as possible; the Utah site would cover the time in-between, Utah folks like Sinclair would be a lot more comfortable if the waste was moved directly from point A to point B. They know from experience that once deposited, hazardous waste has a way of staying put. Although NSP claims the waste site will be safe, Sinclair says the nuclear utilities involved in the project aren't interested in having the stuff stored too close to home.
"If it's so safe," says Sinclair of the proposed storage site, "build it in Minnesota."
Tribe & Map