Shoshone Nation aims to stop Yucca nuke dump

Lawyer for tribe argues that its sacred traditions and beliefs being violated by Energy Department

by Ed Koch
Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS - There is a centuries-old story of Snake Mountain that is still taught to the children of the Western Shoshone Nation.

"Someday when we wake that snake up … it will get mad and rip open," Shoshone Spiritual Leader Corbin Harney wrote in his 1995 book "The Way it Is - One Water, One Air, One Mother Earth."

"With his tail, that snake will move the mountain, rip it open and the poison will come out on the surface."

Today Snake Mountain is called Yucca Mountain, site of the under-construction high-level nuclear waste repository, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas and about 15 miles east of Death Valley in Inyo County.

Robert Hager, the lawyer for the Shoshone tribe, got the OK Wednesday from U.S. District Judge Philip Pro to submit that story as part of Harney's affidavit into the court record of a lawsuit the tribe hopes will halt the nuclear waste dump.

Pro, following an hourlong hearing, took under advisement the Western Shoshone Nation's request for an injunction to stop the project.

Although Hager did not specifically make an argument to stop the project on First Amendment grounds that the Shoshone people are being denied the right of freedom of religion, he gave the Energy Department, overseers of Yucca Mountain, a good indication of where this case eventually may be headed.

Hager, supported by Harney's affidavit, argued that Yucca Mountain is being "desecrated" by the project, that the Indians are being denied access to the sacred rock prayer rings where "the Great Spirit" sends them messages and that bodies of the Indians' ancestors have been disrupted by tunneling.

"The rock rings at Yucca Mountain are very sacred places where the Shoshone people prayed, and when our people pray at the rock rings the message comes and goes through those rings," Harney says in his affidavit.

"I am aware the bodies of some of our ancestors have been removed from Yucca Mountain by government agents, which is a violation of our sacred traditions and beliefs that the body of a person who dies should be buried and should remain at the place where that life ended."

Harney, who is now 85, was among two dozen members of the tribe in Pro's courtroom Wednesday. He and other Shoshones said they no longer have access to the rock ring area.

Hager also said Shoshones already are being poisoned by the project and that as many as 2,500 of them are at risk of getting silicosis - fibrosis of the lungs caused by long-term exposure to silica dust - from the project.

The federal government countered that the Shoshones are barking up the wrong tree by seeking injunctive relief in Las Vegas federal district court, arguing that the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court or the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has jurisdiction in this matter.

Justice Department Attorney Sara Culley said the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which places such matters before the court of appeals, applies in this case. The Shoshones are asking for their injunction by arguing that another statute, the Yucca Mountain Development Act, is unconstitutional.

Pro said jurisdiction is a key question with which he must wrestle.

"I have to stay focused on whether I have jurisdiction," Pro told both sides.

Hager argued that not only does Pro have jurisdiction in this case as set forth by the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863, which specifies uses for the tribe's nearly 60 million acres, Pro also has the power to rule that the Yucca Mountain Development Act is unconstitutional because it is "based on lies."

He was referring to the revelation in late March by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman that employees of the U.S. Geological Survey had written e-mail messages indicating some scientific work had been falsified.

Internal Energy Department e-mails written in preparation for seeking a license to open the nuclear waste repository indicate the alleged falsification focused on the speed at which water flowed through the mountain, an issue that would have meant disqualification of the Yucca site years ago, Hager told Pro.

Hager argued that the president and Congress relied on those tainted reports as sound scientific evidence to pass and sign into law the development act, and that such actions make the statute unconstitutional.

Culley said to stop the project now will be detrimental to many phases including environmental and scientific studies that "Congress has determined is in the best interest of the public."

She said a ruling in favor of the Shoshones also would halt long-term monitoring of the site and electrical maintenance, as well as put 1,600 Energy Department employees out of work.

"The site will fall into disrepair," she said of a lengthy stoppage.

As for removal of Indian bodies from Yucca, Culley said the Shoshones have been invited to "walk through the site" to observe future tunneling, which she said will not occur again for four years. Drilling, however, is continuing, she said.

And Culley said the Indians are not in any immediate harm because environmental protections are in place and that the long process toward licensing involves public input, and that includes the concerns of the Shoshones. She said the earliest date for storing nuclear waste there is 2010.

Culley said the Shoshones will "not likely prevail on the merits" in part because courts long ago determined the Indians do not have title to the land.

Last year, President Bush signed a measure to distribute $145 million to approximately 10,000 Western Shoshone as compensation for land that was taken from the tribe.

The tribe has refused to accept the money and in March filed its lawsuit to stop the nuclear dump project.

Western Shoshone National Council Member John Wells said after the hearing that the government's argument that the tribe no longer owns title to the land should not apply in this case.

"The government should abide by the treaty," Wells said, noting that when American Indians refer to land they are talking about Mother Earth that everyone owns and shares, "not the government's European concept of land ownership."

The treaty specifies the U.S. government can use the land for settlements, mines, ranches and the construction of roads and railroads. Wells said that had the government proposed storing hazardous materials in Yucca Mountain at the time the treaty was signed the Shoshones "definitely would have said no."

Western Shoshone Nation Chief Raymond Yowell said after the hearing that some members of the tribe still call the site Snake Mountain and that the story of it rising up and spewing poison "was the vision of a holy man long before the White Man came.

"Of course, that holy man could not have known about the circumstances now, but, in his vision, he foresaw that one day energy could explode from the mountain. We want to stop that from happening. Mother Earth is sacred to us."

(Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service)

©2005 The Inyo Register

Copyright © 2005 The Inyo Register

Informant: Carrie Dann


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