"Trashing the Reservations"
                  Copyright 1993 U.S. News & World Report
U.S. News & World Report

                                January 11, 1993

SECTION: U.S. NEWS; Vol. 114, No. 1; Pg. 24

LENGTH: 1266 words

HEADLINE:  Trashing the reservations?

BYLINE: By Michael Satchell

HIGHLIGHT: Native Americans are tempted to take waste others
don't want


    For Native Americans, it's a modern twist on an old
aphorism: Beware of white men bearing gifts. The nation's
Indian tribes, most of them impoverished and ignored, suddenly
find themselves being wooed with offers cumulatively amounting
to hundreds of millions of dollars. There is, of course, a
catch: The Indians are being asked to accept what the rest of
America increasingly wants no part of -- garbage, toxic waste,
landfills, incinerators and nuclear-waste dumps. To some
tribes, the offers represent a financial windfall and an
economic development opportunity. To others, they are an ill-
disguised bribe and a Faustian bargain.

    In the past three years, commercial waste-management
companies have approached scores of tribes to locate municipal
garbage or hazardous-waste-disposal facilities on their
reservations. Most offers have been quickly rejected, some have
been seriously considered, a handful are in the works and two
will open this year. The U.S. Department of Energy, desperate
to find storage space for the mounting caches of high-level
radioactive waste from  the nation's 109 commercial nuclear-
power plants, is offering tribes multimillion-dollar economic
aid packages in return for housing spent fuel rods  on their

    The specter of garbage dumps and nuclear-waste vaults
strikes a nerve among  Native Americans, who pride themselves
on reverence for the land. In fact, many  reservations suffer
from some of the nation's worst environmental neglect. In the
East, for example, PCBs, fluoride and other toxic chemicals
migrating from adjacent industrial dump sites have badly
contaminated New York's Mohawk reservation and have ruined its
once viable farming, fishing and sport-hunting economy. In the
West, the Navajos' scenic red-rock vistas have been poisoned by
uranium tailings and scarred by strip mining.

    Some of the damage is self-imposed. Unlined garbage pits
and midnight dumping have turned some reservations into
polluted eyesores. Poverty and unemployment have forced tribes
to exploit their natural resources beyond sustainability. Many
overgraze their rangelands, overcut timber and overuse
pesticides. This last practice boosts crop yields but
contaminates streams, kills fish and sickens wildlife. Says
Roderick Ariwite of the National Tribal Environmental Council,
''We've raped our homelands to maintain our economies."
Right for the tribes? Against this ruinous ecological backdrop,
the issue of waste disposal on the reservations is irradiated
with controversy. ''Entrepreneurs pushing these poisonous
technologies are hoping to take advantage of the chronic
unemployment, pervasive poverty and sovereign status of Indian
tribes," argues Bradley Angel of Greenpeace. But Mervyn Tano of
the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, an economic-development
group, says Native Americans have a responsibility to consider
any legitimate means of providing jobs and economic security
for themselves. ''Greenpeace and other groups are trying to
define what is right and wrong for the tribes," Tano says.
''Who are these people telling Indians what to do?"

    In the waste-trade wrangle, one tribe's trash is another's
treasure. Take Southern California's Kumeyaay Indian Campo
band. Their critical need for economic development on a welfare-
dependent reservation is tempered by an overriding
consideration: pride. ''We don't want casinos and bingo because
we don't want to be a playground for non-Indians," says tribal
member Michael Connolly. ''And we'd starve before we'd sell
beads or pose for pictures."

    Preferring trash to tourism, the Campo this spring plan to
begin construction of a 400-acre landfill that will take 3,000
tons of San Diego County garbage each day. And later this year,
the adjacent La Posta reservation  will begin burying or
recycling garbage and toxic wastes, including motor oil,
industrial solvents and cleaning fluids, at a new disposal
facility of their own. While neither tribe will discuss the
finances of their new waste-disposal activities, the profits
are expected to be substantial.

    For the Oglala Sioux on South Dakota's Pine Ridge
reservation, pride is also paramount when it comes to
attracting commerce and jobs to a reservation where annual per
capita income averages $ 2,000 and unemployment runs at 80
percent. One of the poorest tribes in the nation, the Oglala
Sioux seriously considered getting into the trash business but
recently decided against it -- a decision that cost them at
least $ 30 million in potential royalties. ''Our policy is
always to protect our lands," says Rinard Yellow Boy, the
tribe's director of solid waste. ''We do not want to harm
Mother Earth."

    Where to dispose of an annual 900 million tons of municipal
garbage, industrial toxic waste and sewage sludge is an
increasingly urgent national problem. Since the 1970s, more
than two thirds of the nation's landfills have been closed, and
2,000 of the remaining 6,500 will be shut down within five
years as stricter environmental requirements are imposed or as
they reach capacity. Nuclear waste poses even greater problems.
Some 20,000 tons of high-level, deadly poisonous radioactive
wastes are temporarily stored underwater in reactor pools or in
sealed casks at 73 commercial power plants in  34 states. By
the end of the century, some 42,000 tons of waste will have
accumulated -- enough to cover a football field to a depth of
18 to 20 feet.

    By law, the Department of Energy must take charge of these
wastes by 1998. But the planned permanent repository, deep
inside Yucca Mountain, Nev., remains  mired in legal and
political controversy that will delay its opening at least
until the year 2010, and likely far longer.

    Most receptive. Desperate to find temporary storage for the
waste, the government has targeted Indian reservations. With
their quasi-sovereign status and their need for money and jobs,
tribal lands are perceived as the most receptive venues. To
date, 16 tribes -- and four sparsely populated rural counties
in the West -- have applied for or have received federal grants
to get  into the nuclear-waste business.

    New Mexico's Mescalero Apaches, the most aggressive, have
been awarded $ 300,000 so far to study suitable sites on their
reservation, and they could apply for an additional $ 2.8
million in research funds. If a $ 2 billion ''monitored
retrievable storage" (MRS) facility is built to house the
wastes until a permanent repository is opened, the tribe can
negotiate for potentially  tens of millions of dollars in
reciprocal aid for roads, jobs, housing, clinics  and other
development -- to be paid from a nuclear-power-industry fund.

   The MRS facility, which would resemble a small, well-guarded
industrial park, would also generate jobs for tribal members
and tax revenues for tribal coffers. ''It's a remake of an old
story," says tribal chairman Wendell Chino. ''This time, it's
the Indians arriving in the nick of time to rescue the
government's nuclear wagon train."

    Unfortunately, Uncle Sam's train still isn't rolling fast
enough. Fearful that MRS projects will not be in place in time
to meet the 1998 deadline, the DOE is now floating the idea of
shifting large amounts of hot waste into emergency temporary
storage at nuclear-weapons plants in South Carolina and Idaho
and at several unnamed military bases. Such a move is certain
to create a  firestorm of environmental controversy. But for
Native Americans willing to embrace what the rest of America
spurns, the nuclear-waste crunch could mean a wagon train
filled -- literally -- with glowing economic opportunities.

GRAPHIC: Picture, Garbage in, garbage out. Mississippi Choctaw
Indians protested in 1991 against a toxic-waste dump planned
for their reservation. (Barbara Rascher -- Clarion-Ledger);
Picture, Dangerous lands. Uranium mining has left a  poisonous
legacy for Arizona's Navajo Indians. (Donna Binder -- Impact
Visuals); Picture, Nuclear waste. No place yet to store it (Rob
Crandall -- Picture Group)