Flip-flop on storing nuclear waste shakes up tribe

  • Failed effort: Enviros joined Mescalero Apaches in protest

    Dianne Stallings

MESCALERO, N.M. - On a wind-whipped spring afternoon, tears streamed down the face of anti-nuclear activist Rufina Laws as she stood in the tribal parking lot. Leda Bob, a former tribal secretary, had just hurled a bagful of campaign literature at Laws and cursed her.

The scene symbolized the nastiness that overtook this southern New Mexico reservation as Mescalero Apaches voted to support a high-level nuclear waste storage scheme that they had rejected only six weeks earlier.

The reversal was the tribal equivalent of a steamroller. As leaders barraged the tribe's 3,300 members with letters, the divisive campaign split both families and friends, leaving bitterness that could take months or years to heal. The plan that members approved calls for the tribe to store 40,000 tons of lead-shielded, spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants owned by 33 electric utilities.

Supporters of the storage had been dumbfounded by a 490-361 "no" vote at a Jan. 31 referendum (HCN, 2/20/95). Until then, few Mescaleros had spoken openly against 30-year president Wendell Chino, one of the country's most powerful Indian leaders. Suddenly, Laws, who had gone door-to-door to round up opposition, became an international celebrity in the anti-nuclear movement. She drew interviews from British and German newspapers and planned a national speaking tour.

Then, tribal housing director Fred Kaydahzinne garnered 200 signatures in a petition drive to hold a second referendum. He said "misinformation" about safety issues threatened a project promising 300 to 500 jobs and $250 million in benefits.

The biggest sparks flew over charges that petition-gatherers had promised $2,000 dividends if the referendum passed. Five Mescaleros told the Albuquerque Tribune that they'd personally heard such promises. Tribal leaders strongly denied that charge and blasted critics as dupes of Greenpeace and other Anglo environmental groups.

They accused Laws of mismanaging the tribe's Head Start program when she was director three years ago, although federal documents show that the program was already out of compliance with federal rules when Laws took over.

In letters, leaders promised that the radioactive rods would not leak and that their lead storage casks would never be opened on the reservation.

"Do you honestly think your council whom you have elected would consider something that could be harmful to themselves and their own people?" asked one tribal letter. "Some of the council may be related to some of you. The council, vice president and president have family, relatives and friends who care a great deal about them and feel badly when they are accused so falsely."

As they left the polls in early March, many "yes" voters said they were moved by the promise of better schools. Currently, the reservation has only an elementary school, and many Mescaleros say their children are victims of prejudice in off-reservation schools.

"For the first time the Mescaleros have the upper hand," said Zachary Begay, a patroller at the tribe's ski resort. "It's been a long time since Indian people have had a leverage against surrounding communities."

Most New Mexico leaders opposed the project, but several bills that would have banned or regulated it died in the legislature. Although Mescaleros say Indian sovereignty would stop enforcement of a ban, state Attorney General Tom Udall has vowed to watchdog the project's push for federal licensing.

"I think this idea of moving this kind of waste all across the country to only a so-called temporary facility is ill-conceived," Udall said.

Laws, 50, said she felt the fight was worth it, because it publicly exposed the tribal leadership's iron grip. But she says she'll retreat from the battle lines, set up a nuclear information center and let others do the organizing.

"The only thing I can do now is raising consciousness on this issue," Laws said, "not only for New Mexicans but for as many people as possible."

The writer works in Albuquerque, New Mexico

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