Four years ago, Mescalero Apache Rufina Laws says, she dreamed of iridescent water streaming out of a mountain onto a meadow. It was radioactive, killing all it touched. That nightmare propelled Laws to wage a one-woman fight against a plan for a nuclear-waste storage site on the New Mexico reservation.
Just about everyone, from public
officials and pundits to tribal leaders and even many
environmentalists, expected her to lose to tribal president Wendell
Chino. His 30-odd years in office had proven him one of the most
powerful Native American leaders in the country. Had the proposal
passed, the tribe would have been on its way to hosting more than
20,000 tons of lead-sheathed, radioactive spent fuel rods from
nuclear power plants all over the United
But in early February, Laws proved to be
The Mescalero proposal died by a
57-43 percent margin at the tribal polls, despite a reported
$750,000 poured into the project from 33 electric utilities. Tribal
leaders had opened a waste project office, churned out newsletters
and flown tribal members to nuclear power plants to sell the
They had promised $1 billion in revenues
and 300 to 500 jobs during the project's 40-year life. They had
assured tribal members that they would protect public safety by
storing wastes in leak-proof concrete tubes and that waste
containers would not be reopened for
But Laws, fighting colds and the
flu, drove hundreds of miles around the reservation the weekend
before the election. She knocked on doors and talked to hundreds of
families in their homes and cars. She passed out videos, fact
sheets, newspapers and newsletters.
"I thought I
was going to die," says Laws, an unemployed, 50-year-old
schoolteacher. "I was fevered. I had to take all kinds of
medication to try to keep myself going. I had gone to the hospital
twice in recent weeks, almost breaking into pneumonia. But I knew
it wouldn't get done otherwise if I didn't do it."
During the three years that Chino's
administration pushed the project, public dissent was rare.
Although many Mescaleros would speak against the project in
newspaper interviews, Laws was the only tribal member to lead the
fight. Other potential leaders had dropped out years before after
wearying of what they said was harassment; one opponent, Harlyn
Geronimo, said a horse of his was shot after he spoke
The project's defeat puts the country's
plans for nuclear-waste storage and disposal into an even deeper
limbo than before. About 25 of the nation's 109 plants will run
short of waste-storage space over the next 10 to 15 years,
according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Right now they have no
place to go.
The Yucca Mountain, Nev., high-level
waste dump won't open until well into the early 21st century, if
then. The industry will now push for federal legislation to
establish another temporary site, probably in Nevada, but it will
face stiff opposition.
"The Mescalero defeat has
profound implications for the future of nuclear power," says Miller
Hudson, the tribe's waste consultant for three years until leaving
a few months ago. "If you can work in a community for
three-and-one-half years and explain the pros and cons of a project
and people would just rather not do it, it does make you wonder how
as a nation we will solve the nuclear waste problem."
Mescalero waste-storage project manager Silas
Cochise says the project was defeated by elderly tribal members,
apparently unwilling to risk their grandchildren's
"I really was surprised. I thought we had
this in the basket. I guess I've learned a lesson," Cochise says.
"You've got to listen to the elderly people. The decisions they
make are pretty sound."
Chino, now 70, declined
to speculate on why the proposal lost.
lost isn't important," he says. "What matters is that the people
have spoken. If the tribal council wanted to proceed under its own
powers, we could have gone ahead without a vote. But we promised we
wouldn't do that. We have kept faith with the people and with what
we told them."
Tony Davis works in
Albuquerque, New Mexico.