In the Valley of the Shadow

Surrounded by a staggering array of hazardous waste, toxic emissions, chemical pollutants, and lethal military experimentation, the Goshute tribe of Utah decided to do the logical thing and offer up its reservation as a dump for 40,000 metric tons of highly radioactive nuclear fuel. The neighbors are very upset.

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

Listen to writer Kevin Fedarko discuss the Skull Valley situation on Living on Earth.

For a handful of Goshutes, the suffering the tribe has endured, combined with the miracle of its survival, imbues Skull Valley with enormous cultural and spiritual significance. This is the main thing that sustains those who are trying to put a stop to Bear's plan.

It was snowing the day I went back to the reservation to visit Margene Bullcreek, and the first thing I noticed about the inside of her house was that it wasn't much warmer than outside. Several winters ago, her pipes burst during a cold snap, and she's never had enough money to fix them. Two years ago, she says, her electricity was cut off when she couldn't pay the bill. Nowadays she heats her place with a cast-iron stove perched on firebricks in the living room, cooks with propane, and does her beadwork at night by the light of a kerosene lamp while listening to a battery-operated radio.

Bullcreek's house, which she shares with her two sons and two grandchildren, is small and white and surrounded by an unpainted fence that corrals all sorts of desert flotsam—a pink car seat, a tractor tire with a car battery sitting inside, and four junked vehicles, each missing a hood or an engine or a windshield or wheels. She is 53 now; she moved out to Skull Valley with her parents and five siblings when she was in fifth grade, and grew up riding horses in the foothills of the Stansburys. "It may be quiet and empty to other people, but not to me," she said. "When you stand up here and look over the valley, it is so pretty that you can feel the beauty. Some people have to go to church to meditate, but I don't have to go anywhere. I just have to be here."

Sitting in Bullcreek's chilly living room, I looked out the front window at the driving snow and asked her if she would be able to see the intended waste dump from her house. "Oh, yes," she said. She got up from her chair, drew back the faded curtains decorated with tiny roses, and pointed to the same knoll where Bear had parked his car and sketched his development plans for me.

"Imagine what it will be like when we have that waste down there," she said. "If it comes to that, I won't be able to live here. I'll have to move, and I don't want to do that. The money would provide us what we lack, but how will they compensate me for losses that are priceless? I would lose my home and the cemetery that holds my loved ones. Maybe some people want to go into the melting pot, but I don't. This is where I and my parents were raised, and I don't want to lose it. Our reservation is sacred. This is the only land we have—the only thing the government left us after taking most of our country. Why should we deny this?"

At first, Bullcreek found Leon Bear's efforts to promote his project misleading and mildly humorous. She recalled, for example, his assurance at one meeting that the casks containing the spent fuel rods were "safer than the microwave oven in your kitchen." And then there was his participation in an "educational" video for the tribe in which he pronounced nuclear technology extremely safe, just before the film cut to a scene of the Hanford Site in Washington. (The Hanford Site, constructed by the federal government in 1943 to convert uranium into plutonium for use in America's nuclear arsenal, is now leaking plutonium, cesium, and strontium—some of the most radioactive substances known to man—in the direction of the Columbia River watershed.)

Other things, however, aren't so easy to laugh off, and Bullcreek is not alone in her unhappiness. Her neighbor Sammy Blackbear, 35, is a principal plaintiff among 21 band members in a lawsuit charging that the Bureau of Indian Affairs ignored its obligation to make sure that they were indeed a "voluntary" host community before green-lighting the PFS lease. Although Blackbear claims that Leon Bear once let slip in a tribal meeting that PFS has pledged to pay the Goshutes $1.4 million a year for up to 40 years, this information has been blacked out of the contract. Neither Bear nor PFS will reveal how much money the Goshutes are receiving.

Both Bullcreek and Blackbear claim that no member of the Skull Valley band aside from those on the executive committee—Bear, Rex Allen, and Mary Allen—really knows how much money is involved. "We've asked numerous times, and [Bear] just outright refuses to show tribal members anything," says Blackbear, who is currently unemployed and is raising four children by himself in a weatherbeaten trailer home. "He won't tell us where the money's being spent, how it's being spent, what bank account it's in, or how much there is. He just won't tell us any of this." Both also claim that a significant portion of the PFS money is being distributed to band members who support the nuclear storage project and withheld from those who stand against it.

Bear does not directly dispute his critics' version of events. In addition to paying for the Goshutes' offices in Salt Lake, he says he has been spending the PFS money on "travel to Washington, general administration, and things like that." He also claims that if the PFS project comes to fruition, it will enable the executive committee to purchase health insurance for all 116 members of the band, set up college scholarships for the children, and build an infrastructure to bring the rest of the Skull Valley Goshutes back to the reservation. However, Bear takes issue with Blackbear and Bullcreek's accusations that he has distributed PFS funds exclusively to members of the band who are in favor of resolutions to push the project forward. Instead he characterizes these monetary disbursements as a kind of stock dividend.

"The band has told everybody that if they want to be part of these projects then they will have to approve these resolutions," Bear says. "It's just like a stockholder: If you buy stock, you receive the dividends. So when you sign your name onto [the resolution], you are receiving a percentage of the project." Despite his denials, he seemed to acknowledge that if you don't, you're left out in the cold.

Last winter, according to Blackbear, Chairman Bear and tribal attorney Danny Quintana forced Alliant Techsystems off the rocket test range by substantially raising the rent. Both Bear and Quintana deny intentionally driving Alliant away. However, according to one company source who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "The proposed fee was way out of market rate, and we just walked. They basically pushed us off the site." Blackbear contends that this is a strategy designed to advance Bear's agenda in two ways: First, it increases the chairman's financial leverage over the Skull Valley tribe, and second, it eliminates the problem of proposing to store nuclear waste in close proximity to rocket tests—a situation that could squelch their application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Bullcreek claims to have seen this agenda in action. Three years ago she formed a small local group called Ohngo Gaudadeh Devia (Goshute for "the Ridgetop Timber Community") to organize opposition among her Goshute friends and neighbors, distribute petitions, prod Salt Lake newspaper and TV reporters to investigate Bear's project, and stage public protests in coordination with Leavitt's Office of High Level Waste Storage Opposition. However, her roster of Goshute supporters has dwindled from 25 to fewer than 15, she says, because of Bear's PFS money. "Those of us that oppose the project didn't get any money last year," Bullcreek claims. "Those that supported it got paid twice—once at Thanksgiving and again at Christmas. Leon's waving the dollar sign in front of people, and because people need the money, they feel they should sign up for what he's giving away."

Bullcreek and Blackbear are dismayed that, after all the tribe's been through, Leon Bear's selective cash disbursements have turned the Goshutes against one another. The single road along which the reservation village's 11 houses, trailers, and sheds are arrayed is now a mosaic of divided loyalties. Bullcreek is in the midst of a running argument with her nephews and nieces, who live down the hill from her house. All four are in favor of the project, even though their father, Lester Wash, Bullcreek's brother, adamantly opposed the nuclear waste dump until his death last year after his fingers and legs were amputated as a result of circulation problems exacerbated by alcoholism. Bullcreek fears familial divisions such as these may never be healed. "The tribe is split, the reservation is split," she says. "We're feeling the consequences already, and it hasn't even arrived yet. I don't think we will ever mend the ties we had as a community."

When we finished talking, I offered to give Bullcreek a ride down the road to Sammy Blackbear's. As we pulled out of her driveway, I looked across the street at Leon Bear's house. It had a neat yellow paint job and a black satellite dish bolted to its roof, and the driveway was packed with three late-model vehicles—two extended-cab pickups and a 30-foot motor home. Glancing back at the junked autos lined up next to Bullcreek's shed, I asked how she managed not to succumb to the temptation to give in whenever she pulled out of her front drive. "I could make things easier for myself and my children and my grandchildren by going along with this," she said. "But what they're doing is wrong. And down the road, in a time when my grandchildren's children have health problems and illness and disease, I don't want them to hear that no one stood up and spoke for them."


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