White Mesa Utes beat back Superfund tailings

  • Protest last year by White Mesa Utes ended in victory this December

    Carol Sisco

BLANDING, Utah - The small band of White Mesa Utes, who live on a reservation about 10 miles south of here, hadn't scored any big victories since the 1920s, when the U.S. government recognized their need for a homeland.

But the Utes won a big one in December, when Assistant Energy Secretary Thomas Grumbly decided that 2.6 million cubic yards of tailings from a Superfund site in Monticello, 30 miles to the north, will remain in Monticello.

"I guess this is what I'd say is a good Christmas present," said Norman Begay. He led the Utes' fight against a proposal to truck tailings contaminated with uranium and vanadium to the Energy Fuels Nuclear Inc. uranium mill, south of Blanding. The Indians entered the fray last spring, when it became apparent that the Department of Energy was rethinking its 1990 decision to leave the Monticello tailings in place.

Within a few months, Begay, with the help of Salt Lake City attorney Cullen Battle and several members of the Anglo community in Blanding, had organized stiff opposition to the trucking (HCN, 9/19/94).

The opposition included Indians from around the country who consider the land surrounding the White Mesa reservation sacred. Known as Cedar Mesa, the land contains some of the richest archaeological resources in the country. A foundation that includes members of many tribes is planning a cultural center around some ruins there.

But the White Mesa Utes' concerns were more than spiritual. With their reservation downhill from Energy Fuels, the Utes were worried about groundwater contamination. They also feared that increased truck traffic - about 110,000 round trips over a three-year period - on narrow U.S. 191 would endanger members of the tribe who travel the road frequently.

City and county officials generally supported the truck haul, saying it would bring money, jobs and better roads to the economically depressed region.

The debate became so heated that in October, the DOE appointed a citizens' advisory board and a special mediator to help the communities arrive at a consensus. The citizens' board ended up almost evenly split, finally voting 10-9 in favor of the truck haul.

That led Assistant Energy Secretary Grumbly to reverse the board's decision.

"I do not believe the potential risk of a truck haul is warranted for these low-level radioactive materials when another acceptable option is available," Grumbly said. That option is to dispose of the tailings near where they lie in Monticello.

Grumbly said his decision is final.

That concludes the brouhaha over the tailings, but Begay can't rest just yet. The San Juan County attorney's office has filed a criminal libel charge against him.

The case arises out of statements Begay made about former Blanding Mayor Cleal Bradford, who worked for years as the paid director for the White Mesa Utes. Begay faces an arraignment on the charge later this month.

The writer reports for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah.

High Country News Classifieds