Environmental Justice Case Study: The Yucca Mountain High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository and the Western Shoshone

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Image above taken from EPA's Yucca Mountain Homepage, 1997.

The Problem

The U.S. government has set aside an area of the Western Shoshone Nation, Yucca Mountain, as a final repository for high level nuclear waste from the U.S. nuclear industry. At present, the Department of Energy (DOE) is conducting a scientific investigation of the site that will cost $63 billion and will allow for the repository to be opened by the year 2010. Although they are still investigating the area, the DOE is no longer looking for a site elsewhere. The tribe is extremely concerned about observed health and environmental effects on its members, but currently the federal government has not initiated or implemented any official health studies, remedies to the environmental pollution, programs for early detection of environmental disease, or disease surveillance programs.

Authorities such as the Bureau of Land Management, Forest and Park Services, Fish and Wildlife, Atomic Energy Commission, Department of Defense, and Department of Transportation, now have control over ninety percent of Shoshone land. This is in direct violation of the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1866, and later upheld by President Grant in 1869, that recognizes Shoshone territorial sovereignty.

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Over the last forty years, many Native American communities have been constantly exposed to low-level doses of radiation from a variety of different sources. Since more than half of all United States uranium deposits lie under indigenous lands, uranium mining, milling, conversion, and enrichment have become common activities, especially on Western Shoshone Land.

In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was passed. This Act reaffirmed the right of Native Americans to free access to religious lands and natural resources, even when these lands and resources extend beyond present tribal boundaries. In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. This Act proposed to safely dispose of nuclear wastes, bearing in mind the environmental and cultural impacts on Native American communities. Of three sites investigated for this use, DOE has given Yucca Mountain the greatest consideration.

Part of the conflict rests in whether DOE's actions at Yucca Mountain impinge on the right of Native Americans to gain access to sacred natural resources. According to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACOHP), formed by the National Historic Preservation Act, these resources can be defined as any property that has traditional value to the tribe in question. That property need not have been consistent use since antiquity. It has been confirmed by the Western Shoshone and other tribes that Yucca Mountain has traditional value, despite spatial separation from it use due to invasion by private individuals and the federal government (Stoffle et al, 1990).

In addition to the potential threat of power plant wastes, these communities are also being exposed to radiation from the Nevada Test Site (NTS), also located on traditional Shoshone land. The NTS has been used by the U.S. and Britain to test nuclear weapons for many years. The Western Shoshone National Council considers these tests to be more like bombs, because of the destruction that results from these experiments. Since 1951, approximately 1,350 square miles of their 43,000 square mile territory have been destroyed by hundreds of craters and tunnels that are no more than unsupervised nuclear waste dumps.

There have been environmental monitoring reports issued throughout the years concerning the status of NTS, dated all the way from the 1950's to 1991. These reports prove the presence of substantial low-level radioactive releases of iodine, strontium, cesium, plutonium, and noble gases in outlying areas, with higher concentrations found in reservation communities in close proximity to NTS. Residents have reported unusual animal deaths, human hair loss, the soil in the area turning a dark black color, along with increases of cancer and birth defects.

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Key Actors

National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans

The National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans is a group that formed in 1993 in Las Vegas in order to keep Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) facilities off of tribal lands. They solicited the help of Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico to further their cause. Due to his seats on the influential appropriations and energy committees, he was able to withhold funding for the project.

The Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA is required to set the environmental radiation protection standards for Yucca Mountain. They are also required to set standards for public health and safety. They have provided hearings, public meetings, stakeholders meetings and other avenues for the exchange of information.

The Western Shoshone Defense Project

The Western Shoshone Defense Project has been established in order to affirm Shoshone jurisdiction over their homelands. They hope that they can achieve this by protecting, preserving, and restoring their rights and lands based on cultural and spiritual traditions. They were established in 1991. They are actively involved in issues of nuclear power and seek to stop nuclear colonization. They act through peace and non-violence, and believe that environmental justice and social justice are integral to each other.

Chief Raymond D. Yowell and the Western Shoshone International Council

Chief Raymond D. Yowell and the Western Shoshone International Councils are using a lawsuit to prevent the construction of the Yucca Mountain Repository. The Western Shoshone National Council is the government of the Western Shoshone people and was established to protect the sovereign rights of the Shoshone as a separate people.

The Western Shoshone National Council (WSNC)

The WSNC has been in constant battle with the federal government over the sovereignty of the Western Shoshone land, and how the land has been abused. In 1994, the council started the Western Shoshone Health Project.

The Western Shoshone Nation

The Western Shoshone Nation is the larger overall Shoshone population that will benefit from the Health Project. The protesters are able to get a better understanding of the effects of exposure to radiation.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)

DOE is the government agency that is conducting the investigation of the Yucca Mountain Site. This agency has recognized the potential adverse impact of the test site on sacred Native American religious areas, and is committed to seeing that free religious exercise is protected (Stoffle, et al, 1992).

Native American Health Network

The Western Shoshone Health Project (WSHP) is the educational project created by the WSNC to educate people affected by the nuclear waste. The Native American Health Network is a network of organizations that includes the WSHP, Childhood Cancer Research Institute, and Native Americans for a Clean Environment.

The Center for Technology, Environment, and Development (CENTED)

CENTED is the research institute that is working with the Shoshone to educate people and to observe the problems caused by the nuclear waste.

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As shown above by 1990 U.S. Census data, a large proportion of Western Shoshone households live near the poverty line, at about $15,000 annually. In fact, of the 220 Western Shoshone families, almost a third live below the poverty line. Further, only 41 families had a householder that worked in 1989. The data above help show the limited resources that the Western Shoshone have at their disposal in their struggle to maintain their religious freedom.

Maps of the Affected Area

Provided by Stoffle et al, 1990

Shown above is a map detailing the general distribution of Western Shoshone across Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, and California.

Shown above is a more detailed map of Western Shoshone lands, and the proximity of the Nevada Test Site, and the presence of the potential Yucca Mountain Site on Western Shoshone land.

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As a result of the lack of environmental health concern on the part of the federal government, WSNC decided to take action and formed the Western Shoshone Health Project in 1994. The goals of the project are to collect data on the effects of nuclear fall out from sites like NTS, as well as providing information on the quality of the land, soil, water, plants, and health of the people in the territory. They are a part of the Native American Health Network which includes organizations such as the Childhood Cancer Research Institute, and Native Americans for a Clean Environment.

The goal of the project is to try to correct the imbalance of risk by taking proactive steps to encourage a better understanding of radiation and its effect on health issues among members of Native American communities. A large part of the program is the "Training of the Trainers Program", where they acquire an understanding of critical social and technical aspects of radiation issues, by integrating technical skills with educational training. A unique partnership is forged among outside researchers, health care providers, and native communities by combining indigenous ways of thinking with technical skills.

Next, the trainers take the technical skills they have acquired from the program and develop educational modules for tribal members. Health scientists from the Center for Technology, Environment and Development (CENTED), at Clark University, in Worcester MA, are working closely with the Shoshone community to create an understanding of local knowledge and experiences.

Another main tactic has involved using the courts to prevent the construction of the site. Right now, the case is in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (D'errico, 1996). The Shoshone have decided to represent themselves instead of a lawyer. Chief Raymond D. Yowell is the representative for the Western Shoshone.

The problem for the Western Shoshone is that the United States see the land as under their control under plenary federal power. The Western Shoshone argue that the basis of this plenary federal power is rooted in the colonial arrogance of the 17th century, and the laws that gave the United States Government control over the Native Americans are "extensions of Christian claims to world supremacy."

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Evaluation of the Strategies

The strength of the Shoshone's strategies lies in its proactiveness. A campaign focused on education has helped them deal with the root of the problem in a very proactive way. Perhaps if the Shoshone people had been educated on the health and environmental effects of radiation, the devastation and destruction that has overcome their people and their lands could have been avoided to some degree. With this outside assistance of experts in the field, a new avenue is being forged with the high probability of positive results. Whether these efforts will have any impact on the intentions of the federal government is yet to be seen.

A primary strength of the Western Shoshone's strategies is that they are trying to achieve their goals through non-violence. They are a people that are truly affected by the decisions made in the Yucca Mountain project. They are led by pride, strength, and tradition. They are directly affected, therefore they have the most at stake.

Another strength is the fact that the site is geologically unstable. The Shoshone can use this to show that the government did not choose the most favorable land for the repository. Further, a claim might be made that the United States government deliberately targeted the Shoshone land for this waste, whether for racial or socioeconomic reasons, or both.

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The struggle should continue to have two main foci: legal and educational. The Western Shoshone should continue their struggle in the courts, using scientific evidence of geological instability to show that they may have been deliberately targeted by the federal government to bear a disproportionate burden of the environmental costs posed by the facility. If so, the court may be persuaded to enjoin the construction of the Yucca Mountain repository. Also, the Shoshone should continue efforts to educate the community as to the health effects of radioactive material. They should maintain their proactive stance, and find strength in knowledge and numbers.

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Notes and Key Contacts

US Department of Energy's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management's Yucca Mountain website

US Environmental Protection Agency's Yucca Mountain website

Thorpe, Grace (1996) Our Homes Are Not Dump Zones


Expired (old) Links:

1. Haste Makes Waste

2. Western Shoshone (Nevada) Peace Brigades International Special Report

3. Dominick, Renate (1991) Western Shoshone

4. Environment. Raven, Berg & Johnson Copyright 1993 p 219,223

5. Thorpe, Grace (1996) Our Homes Are Not Dump Zones

6. US EPA (1996) EPA's Yucca Mountain Update

7. Western Shoshone Defense Project (1996) Protect Western Shoshone Lands

8. d'Errico, Peter (1996)Western Shoshone Intervention in U.S. v. Nye County

9. d'Errico, Peter (1996)United States Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit

10. Knudsen, A. (1996). Native Americans Bear the Nuclear Burden

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