Indians Press Clinton To Halt Waste Storage

Native Americans say nuclear-waste program targets reservations

ENVIRONMENTAL and native American activists are calling on President-elect Clinton to stop government efforts to store nuclear waste on Indian reservations.

President Bush signed a bill in October extending the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator, which has been trying to locate sites to store this waste for some 40 years. Critics say the office targeted Indian reservations, after states and counties were reluctant to store the waste.

Don Hancock, of the environmental group Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, N.M., says the program should be stopped. If Mr. Clinton fires the negotiator and fails to appoint a new one, "the whole program will end."

In 1987, as plans for building a site were delayed, Congress passed a bill for temporary storage. One or more Multiple Retrievable Storage (MRS) sites could hold waste until a permanent site opens. The government hopes to permanently store nuclear-power-plant waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev., and military nuclear waste near Carlsbad, N.M.

Unable to find states or counties willing to host an MRS, the waste negotiator looked to tribes. Under federal law, reservations are sovereign and outside the jurisdiction of state governors.

The Mescalero Apaches in southern New Mexico have gone closest to hosting an MRS. The tribal council has accepted $300,000 from the waste negotiator to consider providing a site. Miller Hudson, a non-Indian consultant hired by the Mescaleros as MRS information officer, says the tribe and nearby communities could get $10 million to $50 million per year from the federal government and nuclear-power industry if an MRS is set here.

That money could improve local schools and infrastructure, and help provide jobs, Mr. Hudson says. He says an MRS would be safe. The 450-acre facility would be a "high-tech parking lot," and could attract tourists.

A GROWING number of Mescaleros oppose the project. Joseph Geronimo, the great-grandson of the famous Apache leader, says the tribe and surrounding communities could be devastated in the event of an accident. Mr. Geronimo says non-Indians would get all the high-paying technical and managerial work, while Mescaleros would get the service jobs.

Donalyn Torres, another reservation resident, says she doubts that the MRS would be temporary. If Yucca Mountain never opens, as many believe, then the government would be under pressure to keep the waste on the reservation. She charges that the Tribal Council has been fooled by the nuclear-waste industry, much as earlier generations of Indians were manipulated by whiskey salesmen and oil companies.

Pacific Nuclear Corporation, which makes waste-storage containers, has worked closely with the council. If the Mescaleros accept the MRS and adopt the firm's technology, the firm stands to make large profits. Nuclear-power plants across the nation might have to use the company's containers to meet Mescalero MRS standards, says Hudson, who used to work for Pacific Nuclear. They could become an industry standard.

Many people outside the reservation also oppose the site. The governor, state legislature, and New Mexico's congressmen oppose the project. Mr. Hancock says statewide polls show that only 5 percent to 10 percent of the people support an MRS.

The tribal council is now doing a safety study on the MRS, and has promised to hold a reservationwide referendum before proceeding further.

Geronimo and other tribal critics say past tribal votes have been counted in secret, leaving the process open to manipulation. They say they will accept a referendum if outside observers monitor it and declare it fair.

The referendum and negotiation process would become mute if Clinton eliminates the Office of the Waste Negotiator. That would be the best solution, he says.

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