The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ approval of a lease agreement for storing nuclear waste on the Skull Valley Goshute reservation in Utah may have been issued contrary to Interior Department policy at the time.
The proposal to store 44,000 tons of used reactor fuel on the Goshute reservation 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City has been fought in courts and regulatory agencies for nine years. It also has divided the small Goshute Skull Valley Band.
In February, tribal leader Leon Bear and Private Fuel Storage LLC, a Wisconsin-based consortium of utilities, overcame their biggest hurdle when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a license for the proposed waste facility.
Equally critical to the project was a decision in May 1997 by David Allison, a local superintendent for the bureau, which is an Interior Department agency.
Allison approved the lease, with conditions. Final approval was contingent on completing an environmental statement and winning the NRC license.
There is virtually no public record trail surrounding Allison’s decision. It appears the bureau’s regional office in Phoenix merely rubber-stamped the decision later in 1997.
The decision involved the politically charged issue of nuclear waste. Yet the bureau’s approval of the dump caused not even a ripple of discussion at department headquarters in Washington.
“I have no memory of any discussions of it,” recalls Paul Leshy, the department’s top lawyer at the time.
Did Allison’s action violate department policy?
In the 1990s, the department was concerned about how the bureau was handling leases that involved waste disposal facilities on Indian land. The department said it was imperative that the bureau take into account all points of view and “act objectively” in such cases.
To stress the point, the department’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs wrote a memo in 1991 to all area directors that “there will be no conditional approvals for waste facilities in the future” without a completed environmental impact review.
A copy of the memo was obtained by Public Citizen, a Washington-based advocacy group, when it requested documents pertaining to the Skull Valley waste decision under the Freedom of Information Act. The group provided them to The Associated Press.
George Farris, who wrote the memo, is now retired and living in Texas. He confirmed the memo in an interview and said as far as he knew, it had never been withdrawn.
Don Sutherland succeeded Farris in the bureau’s division of environmental services and is still there. “I’ve never seen it rescinded. We would have been involved in a rescission,” he says.
Bureau spokesman Gary Garrison said he was unaware of the 1991 memo. “I’ve never heard of anything being conditionally approved,” he said.
Jeanette Hanna was the bureau’s regional director in Phoenix and is not retired. Her office upheld Allison’s decision on the Skull Valley lease. She said she does not recall any directive involving conditional leases.
Allison said in an interview that he approved the lease because he felt strongly it was to the tribe’s benefit.
As for any prohibition against conditional approvals, he said, “I know it was an issue that was discussed quite a bit with the attorneys.” He did not recall the specific memo.
“Sometimes you have to take into consideration what’s best for the tribe,” Allison said. It is unlikely that the Wisconsin-based consortium would have gone ahead with the lengthy and expensive NRC process for licensing without at least a conditional lease to use the reservation land.
Allison’s office is more than an hour’s drive from Skull Valley, but nuclear dump opponents have suggested a cozy relationship between tribal leader Bear, the prime force behind the project, and Allison.
Public Citizen, the advocacy group, said in its Freedom of Information requests it found nothing to shed light on Allison’s decision-making.
In one reply, an official at the bureau’s Phoenix office wrote the group that “No one except (Allison) can state with certainty what documents were considered in review of the lease before it was approved.”
“We found no paper trail on the evaluation,” said Melissa Kemp of Public Citizen after reviewing the handful of documents the group received.
Bear did write Allison after the tribal executive committee approved a final version of the lease two days after Christmas in 1996. “Will you please sign the lease on page 32. … After you have signed both original documents will you please return them to the (PFS) project office in Salt Lake city,” it said.
The final lease was dated May 23, 1997. It was approved by Allison three days later.
Allison said there were months of discussions about details in the lease before he received the final version.
Margene Bullcreek, a member of the Goshute Skull Valley Band and its most vocal critic of the waste dump, sued in federal court in Salt Lake City. She asked the court to overturn the government’s approval of the lease. The suit was recently dismissed, said her lawyer, Paul Echo-Hawk.
© 2006 The Associated Press