Op-Ed: A Native American Yucca Mountain Experience

By Ian Zabarte | April 17th, 2017

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set the radiation protection standards for Yucca Mountain in 2001 without considering the comments of the Native Community Action Council challenging the standard for not being protective of Native Americans.

The EPA set the radiation protection standard based on a hypothetical individual living 11 miles from Yucca Mountain, getting water from a well and farming known as “the reasonably maximally exposed individual.” No consideration was given to the comments on potential impact to Natives, and the Department of Energy adopted the EPA standards, denying any arguments that did not support licensing of Yucca Mountain.

This amounts to environmental racism, a violation of Former President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order 12898, Federal Action to Address Environmental Justice in Low Income and Minority Communities.

As the Yucca Mountain licensing proceeding before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission loomed in 2008, the Native Community Action Council (NCAC) began preparing, and in December 2008, they intervened in the Atomic Safety Licensing Board Panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Two contentions of the NCAC deal with ownership of land and water rights. Specifically, the NCAC relied on the same federal statute that made Nevada the foundation for the ownership interests that accrue to the Shoshone people. The 1861 Nevada Organic Act states:

“Provided, further, that nothing in this act contained shall be construed to impair the rights of person or property now pertaining to the Indians in said territory, so long as such rights shall remain unextinguished by treaty between the United States and such Indians, or to include any territory which, by treaty with any Indian tribe, is not, without the consent of said tribe, to be included within the territorial limits or jurisdiction of any state or territory.”

The NCAC, representing the Shoshone and Paiute people, intervened in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing of Yucca Mountain. The proceedings are regarded as the most complicated and lengthy legal proceeding ever created. The NCAC achieved “party with standing” in the proceedings before the Atomic Safety Licensing Board Panel without any financial support, bringing three contentions – one contention related to the National Environmental Policy Act and two legal contentions related to ownership of land and water rights.

The NCAC is the only non-federally funded party to the licensing proceedings, whereas the Department of Energy, together with other parties including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the State of Nevada, have spent about $15 billion.

The Shoshone and Paiute peoples began questioning the impact to the people and land from radioactive fallout released by the U.S. and the United Kingdom’s testing of weapons of mass destruction.

Between 1986 and 1990, the Shoshone and Paiute participated in the creation of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 with former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and local Las Vegas lawyer Larry Johns to provide payments radiated people in the area who contracted cancer. “Downwinders” received up to $50,000, onsite participants received up to $75,000 and uranium miners up to $100,000.

Citizen Alert, then Nevada’s only statewide grassroots environmental organization, collaborated with the Shoshone and Paiute people to create the Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities Project.

Research conducted by the NCAC reviewed the Department of Energy Offsite Radiation Exposure Review Profile and found that the DOE did not replicate Native lifestyles and instead substituted a sheep herder lifestyle for analysis.

Citizen Alert no longer exists, but today the NCAC proudly bears the banner, “Nevada is Not a Wasteland,” to protect the people and the land of the Great Basin. 25 years ago, the Shoshone and Paiute people organized the first Healing Global Wounds event, the first Native American conference and pow-wow ever held at UNLV, on the 500th anniversary of Europe’s “discovery” of North America.

The NCAC is preparing to meet the continued licensing of Yucca Mountain by hosting the 2017 Native American Forum at UNLV on Earth Day, April 22 in the Barrick Museum Auditorium from 1 to 8 p.m. The Las Vegas community is invited to participate.

Further information can be found at www.nativecommunityactioncouncil.org.

Editor’s Note: Articles in the opinion section reflect the views of the author only, not necessarily the UNLV Scarlet & Gray Free Press or any of its staff.


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