BLANDING, Utah - They came together to build a Native American cultural center seven miles south of here, near a small hill known as Avikan. In Ute that means a "place where I can lie down."
The members of a small nonprofit
foundation bought 640 acres encompassing a kiva and a short
rock-wall structure believed to be an ancient Hopi temple. Thanks
to the help of a generous but anonymous Salt Lake City businessman,
they began raising money to build a center adjacent to the
Then this year they learned that a
15-year-old uranium mill one mile south of Avikan was not going to
be shut down. It was headed for a new life as a burial ground for
low-level radioactive waste. Tailings from uranium mill cleanups
from around the country would be trucked to the site recently
bought from UMETCO by Energy Fuels Nuclear, a privately held
company based in Denver, Colo.
To the Native
American Peoples Historical Foundation, sharing the land with
uranium mill leavings was a bitter blow. "This is a very special
place to us," says Norman Begay, who does not belong to the
foundation but who is a member of the nearby White Mesa Ute Indian
Tribe. "We don't want a waste dump here."
Winston Mason, a foundation spokesman, has
stronger words. "Our Native American people look upon (the
radioactive waste dump) as a moral offense," he says. A Sioux,
Mason is on the foundation's board along with members of the Ute,
Tewa, Hopi, Navajo, Comanche, Choctaw, Pima and Cheyenne
To Indians in North America, Avikan is a
spiritual gathering place, says Stan Bronson, an Anglo resident
here who is writing a history of the White Mesa tribe. Bronson says
tribes in New York talk about an ancient red homeland that has
three great rivers, one of which is called the River Which Flows
Toward The Setting Sun As It Crosses The Backbone Of The
In southeastern Utah, the San Juan River
flows west and intersects a backbone-like geologic formation called
Comb Ridge, Bronson points out.
A few months
after Energy Fuels Nuclear bought the mill, the site was licensed
to open as a low-level radioactive dump by the U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission. Local resident Begay asked the agency in
August for a hearing, arguing that a new active dump threatens
Avikan's water supplies and creates a road hazard. Begay also said
the significance of Avikan was harmed.
commission rejected Begay's request, although it held the door open
for another petition. As a director of the Utah Division of
Radiation Control, Bill Sinclair, put it, "The (NRC) officials have
not dealt with religious arguments about sacred ground before."
The commission said it would hold a hearing
sometime this fall.
Would Energy Fuels Nuclear
also take a second look and perhaps find another dump site? Harold
Roberts, vice president of operations for the company, doesn't
think so. He says the mill site, which has the capacity to store up
to 3 million tons of waste, has been in complete compliance with
all federal regulations.
reports for the Deseret News in Salt Lake
more information, contact the Native American Peoples Historical
Foundation, The Great Avikan House, Box Avikan, Blanding, UT 84511,
or call 801/678-3230. For information about the uranium mill and
waste dump, call Energy Fuels Nuclear Inc.,