Western Shoshone Sue to Stop Yucca Mountain

* The Western Shoshone National Council filed suit against the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Interior recently over their proposal to build and operate the Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository on their ancestral lands.

In 1987, Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the only location that DOE may consider at which to locate a high-level nuclear waste repository. It is located approximately 90 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. Critics have raised many concerns about Yucca Mountain, including its geologic suitability and its potential impacts on ground water resources. It sits atop the Amargosa Aquifer, which provides a large amount of drinking water to Los Angeles, California.

Development of Yucca Mountain has been delayed for several years due to federal budget cuts and ongoing debate about its scientific viability. Also, there has been continuing public and political outcry over its potential impacts not only on the communities surrounding it, but also the communities from which waste will be shipped. DOE now estimates that Yucca Mountain will not open until 2012, two years later than recently estimated.

The Western Shoshone are suing under the Treaty of Ruby Valley, which they entered into with the U.S. government in 1863. The treaty stipulates that Western Shoshone land may only be used for the establishment of settlements, mines, ranches, railroads and roads. The Western Shoshone argue that the development of a high-level nuclear waste repository is not included in these five uses. The U.S. Constitution states that treaties are the supreme law of the land and override all other U.S. laws. Therefore, the treaty's limitations on the use of Western Shoshone land remain valid.

Western Shoshone Chief Raymond Yowell said, "Mother Earth is sacred to the Shoshone and is not to be hurt by us. That is not negotiable."

The Treaty of Ruby Valley was signed to facilitate U.S. transportation across Western Shoshone lands during the Civil War in order that the federal government could secure additional funding for the war through gold mining activities in California. U.S. Federal District Courts nationwide have found that treaties with Native American Nations are binding contracts.

The lawsuit comes amid discussion of federal budget allocations for Yucca Mountain. While investigation of Yucca Mountain is funded by a tax on users of nuclear energy, the U.S. Congress can limit the amount that DOE can spend on it per year. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, has worked to ensure that the Yucca Mountain budget has been cut by approximately $1 billion in the last decade.

Further, Yucca Mountain is considered by many to be the largest public works project ever conceived. Many critics argue that the larger such projects are, the more difficult it becomes to predict costs, timelines and impacts. William Ibbs, a professor at the University of California, said, "The track record of most government agencies is not very good in terms of managing these types of projects."

The 13th Annual Western Shoshone Spring Gathering will be held May 20 through 22 in Nevada. For more information, contact (775) 468-0230.

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