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Know the West

Tribes protest Ward Valley dump site

  Since early February, protesters from five Native American tribes have camped out near a proposed nuclear waste storage site in Ward Valley, Calif. The Bureau of Land Management, which wants to finish studying the site, ordered the 30 or so people off the land by Feb. 19.

But on Feb. 25, the BLM stopped policing the site. So far, the agency has not ordered any arrests, and the standoff continues.

"The tribes are furious that (the Department of) Interior totally ignored tribal and environmental concerns," says Steve Lopez, a spokesman for the Fort Mojave Indian tribe.

The proposed 90-acre project on BLM land near Needles, Calif., would use unlined trenches to store low-level radioactive waste from Arizona, California, North Dakota and South Dakota. The site would be administered by the California Department of Health Services, but in order for the site to open, the BLM must first transfer the land to California. The state's Department of Health Services has sued the federal agency for delaying the transfer, which tribal groups and some environmentalists are determined to block with their sit-in.

Molly Johnson of Save Ward Valley, a local environmental coalition, says the dump is too close to the Colorado River - just 18 miles away - and that it could harm both the Colorado River aquifer and habitat of the threatened desert tortoise. U.S. Ecology, the private company contracted to manage the site, she adds, has had problems with liquid waste leakage at a similarly designed site in Beatty, Nev. "This is a failed technology that obviously doesn't work," she says.

Peter Baldridge, a staff attorney for the California Department of Health Services, acknowledges the leakage problems in Beatty but says that the Ward Valley site would accept only solid waste.

Meanwhile, the protesters, who call themselves the Colorado River Native Nations Alliance, say they will camp on the contested land until they are granted "nation to nation" consultation with federal agencies about the proposed project. BLM spokeswoman Carole Levitzky says the agency is negotiating with the protesters.

For more information, contact Save Ward Valley at 760/326-6267 or the Needles District of the BLM at 760/326-7000.

" Michelle Nijhuis