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

High Country News Classifieds
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.