A clash of cultures: tribal versus nuclear

  • Norman Begay outside radioactive dump

    Brent Israelsen photo

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 ruins.

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 tribes.

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 Earth.

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.

The 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.

Brent Israelsen reports for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

For 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., 800/525-3088.

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