The Goshute Indians are a small tribe (about 125 members) based on the Skull Valley reservation near Salt Lake City, Utah. As with many Native American reservations, the Skull Valley land is less than desirable. What was once dramatically beautiful, although barren, country has been polluted by the introduction of hazardous and low-level radioactive waste dumps, an electrical power plant, and a Federal Government weapons-testing site. All of these facilities surround the Goshute reservation. The Federal Government’s activities have been particularly harmful. In the 1960’s, a nerve gas accident led to the death of 6,000 downwind sheep on the reservation.
The Goshutes, not surprisingly, have not been terribly successful in attracting new businesses to the reservation. Few companies seek to build their offices within striking range of an errant Air Force missile. Or, as tribal chairman Leon D. Bear said in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, "What are we going to do, open a golf course here? Nobody wants to golf in a toxic zone." However, a group of nuclear-energy companies, represented by the coalition known as Private Fuel Storage, Inc., seek to temporarily store their high-level nuclear waste on the Goshute reservation-the kind of waste that could kill a person exposed to it in seconds. With limited economic options, the Goshute tribe, led by Leon D. Bear, enthusiastically seek to bring the PFS facility to Utah.
The nuclear companies need a temporary storage site because of delays in obtaining permission to build a permanent facility underneath Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The temporary facility would need to hold spent nuclear fuel rods for about 20 years. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has supported the idea of a Utah facility, and has worked with the Goshutes and the nuclear industry to design one.
However, Utah state officials, accompanied by anti-nuclear and environmental activists, are vehemently fighting the project. Republican Governor Michael Leavitt, who has earned a reputation as a business-friendly politician, has switched sides to lead the anti-facility attack. Yet the Goshutes are an independent native American nation. For the most part, the tribe is free to make whatever business deals it wishes, without obtaining the consent of Utah politicians.
Still, as Governor Leavitt commented in his 1999 State of the State address, this fight "is not the state of Utah versus a small, struggling, Indian nation." There are many Goshutes who have joined Utah in fighting the plant. In April, a Federal District Court judge agreed to consolidate two actions seeking to stop construction on a waste-facility: one by the Utah Attorney General’s office, and the other by Goshute tribal members. It is the dissenting Goshutes who make the argument of environmental racism. The reservation, they argue, should have more economic options than a nuclear waste dump. The tribe should not be forced to take fuel rods with a half-life of 10,000 years in order to make a living. Of course, Leon Bear could counter with an environmental justice argument of his own – that if he were a white, political supporter of the Governor, there would be no state-led opposition to the site.
The law review note by C. Michael Rasmussen tells this story with the most detail. However, the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper clippings give the story its life. The testimony given to the NRC also adds a lot of emotion. Together, these materials give an interesting look at this upside-down, environmental justice case, with the minority population fighting for the right to store nuclear waste on their land.