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
  • PROGRAM OFFICER, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES, NOVO FOUNDATION
    The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • ARMY OF THE DOG
    A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • ANNIE CLARK TANNER FELLOWSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • ALASKA STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • TEMPORARY ASSISTANT EDITOR
    Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • GRASSROOTS LEADERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a full-time grassroots leadership director to oversee all aspects of the Grassroots Leadership Program. This includes ongoing development of...
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • RIVER GUIDE AND EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • POLICY AND RESEARCH ASSOCIATE
    The Center for Western Priorities (CWP) is a nonpartisan communications and policy center that serves as a source of accurate information, promotes responsible policies and...