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.


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

Should you ever find yourself motoring west out of Salt Lake City, escaping the toothy reaches of the Wasatch Mountains, skirting the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake, and hammering down into the maw of the Great Basin, you’d do well to pull off Interstate 80 at an exit called Rowley Junction and pause in the parking lot of a gutted truck stop that used to be known as Teddy Bears. All that’s left now is the shell of a building carpeted with shattered glass, chunks of loose sheet metal creaking drunkenly in the furnace breeze, and the burnt husk of an abandoned car. Still, it’s a good place to stop and meditate on the road ahead. Because before you sits the gateway to one of the most woeful stretches of land in all of North America: Skull Valley, Utah.

Five miles south of Teddy Bears on Route 108 you’ll pass a particularly surreal monument: the bust of a Polynesian warrior standing sentinel over the remains of Utah’s first and only leper colony. Perched upon his stone pillar, the warrior stares west toward the remains of Iosepa, a settlement founded by a group of native Hawaiians who had converted to Mormonism and migrated to Salt Lake City in 1875 to dwell in Zion’s holy citadel. Eventually, the church elders shipped them out to this valley, where they carved irrigation ditches, grew vegetables, and won a prize for the “best-kept town and the most progressive city in the state of Utah.” In 1896, however, the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae appeared in Iosepa. Although only a handful of leprosy cases were confirmed, the little village was ostracized and never recovered. The Hawaiians stuck it out for another 20 years, but in 1917 the residents fled back to the islands, leaving behind a half-acre graveyard holding 79 plots and a lone red fire hydrant. Somebody apparently still comes by to spruce up a mournful display of plastic orchids, frangipani, and hibiscus that quiver in the dry, high desert wind. It’s a fitting talisman for a valley where the dead outnumber the living.

Flanked by the Stansbury Mountains to the east and the dry, rounded ridges of the Cedar Mountains to the west, Skull Valley stretches north-south for nearly 50 miles, a long, low, bald pate of rock festooned with a toupee of parched greasewood and cheat grass. It’s easy to see why the locals simply call it “Skull.” The bleakness only gets bleaker the more you look around.

Just beyond the Cedars lies Tooele County’s West Desert Hazardous Industries Area, where three waste-management corporations are engaged in the business of entombing pesticides, lacquers, metal solvents, wastewater sludge, used syringes, plastic resins, dioxin-tainted ash, empty chemical barrels, vats of unused printer’s ink, radioactive mill tailings, and mounds of toxic trash from factories, research plants, and Superfund sites across the United States. South of the Hazardous Industries Area, there’s the Wendover Bombing Range, a 25,000-square-mile military playground where F-16 Falcons, A-10 Thunderbolts, and B-52 Stratofortress bombers routinely fire missiles and drop “precision-guided penetrating ordnance” onto the desert floor. At the very top of Skull, where the valley’s northern end reaches the shore of the Great Salt Lake itself, stands a magnesium production plant operated by a Salt Lake City­based company named MagCorp. From 1995 to 1997, the plant earned the number-one ranking on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Releases Inventory, a list of America’s biggest industrial polluters, because it emitted more than 85 tons of hydrochloric acid and pseudocumene into the air each day. (MagCorp recently installed industrial scrubbers that have reduced the plant’s emissions.) At the opposite end of the valley sits the Dugway Proving Ground, a restricted military zone roughly the size of Rhode Island, where the U.S. Army has spent decades experimenting with everything from incendiary bombs to a potpourri of chemical and germ warfare agents, such as VX nerve gas, botulism, brucellosis, anthrax, bubonic plague, and tularemia. To the east, just the other side of the Stansburys, the Army’s Tooele Chemical Demilitarization Facility is slouching toward a terrible milestone as its workers labor to complete an eight-year, round-the-clock mission to incinerate 43 percent of America’s chemical weapons—some 1.1 million rockets, missiles, and mortars packed with 13,000 tons of sarin, mustard gas, and other deadly agents. Although the surrounding area is sparsely populated and the plant is more than 25 miles from Salt Lake City, the Pentagon estimates that a severe accident could kill as many as 89,000 people. This would be in addition to the 6,400 sheep the Army accidentally gassed in 1968.

If you were to pull out a map and draw a rough circle connecting Dugway, the MagCorp plant, the Wendover Bombing Range, the Hazardous Industries Area, and the Army’s chemical weapons incinerator, the center would be a point about 15 miles south of the Polynesian warrior. Not a prime piece of real estate, to be sure. But here, in 1912, the federal government set aside 18,000 acres as a reservation for the surviving members of perhaps the most ravaged group of Indians in all of North America, the Skull Valley band of Goshutes.

It is impossible for the 25 Goshutes who still reside on the Skull Valley reservation to avoid the dangers that surround them. (Most of the 91 tribe members who make their homes off the reservation live nearby in Grantsville, Stockton, and Salt Lake City, Utah.) But before you get back in your car and vacate this little patch of hell as fast as you can, take a deep breath and consider the toxic trash and noxious chemicals, the deadly biohazards and mephitic clouds of gas, the military debris and industrial detritus that taint Skull’s soil, pollute its air, and fester in the DNA of its plants and animals. Certainly, it’s too much for one piece of land to bear. But then also consider that the Goshutes have been wandering in these barrens since the last Ice Age and have faced extinction many times before. And then mull this final thought: For all these reasons, and a few more, the current chairman of the Skull Valley Goshutes, a 44-year-old former security guard named Leon Bear, is eager to start filling up his tribe’s front yard with the ultimate 20th-century poison, the last missing element in the valley’s litany of contaminants—40,000 metric tons of uranium fuel rods, virtually the entire stock of high-level radioactive waste that has been produced by America’s 128 commercial nuclear power plants.

Now floor it.


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



As with so much human enterprise in Skull Valley, Leon Bear’s scheme to make the Goshutes major players in the nuclear-waste storage business grew out of someone else’s urgent need to clean up a big mess. Three years ago, Bear signed a multimillion-dollar contract with Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of eight utility companies whose 19 nuclear power plants in Ohio, New York, California, New Jersey, Illinois, Minnesota, Alabama, and Wisconsin are running out of space to store their spent fuel rods. If the Goshutes and PFS are granted a license by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is currently reviewing their 1,211-page application, construction on a site that will hold more than ten million spent fuel rods with a radioactive half-life of 10,000 years will begin as early as fall 2001—right about the time Salt Lake City will be gearing up to host the February 2002 Winter Olympics. (As harmonic convergences go, it’s a doozy, causing editors of a local newspaper to quip that an appropriate motto for the Winter Games might be “the greatest glow on earth.”)

The plan calls for the rods, which now reside in cooling ponds and sealed containers at nuclear plants around the country, to be packed in 4,000 eighteen-foot-high stainless steel casks and set up on a huge three-foot-thick concrete slab, like some sinister postmodern art installation. It’s meant to be “temporary”—between 20 and 40 years—but for as long as the waste sits there, the Goshute reservation will be the nation’s largest open-air nuclear waste dump.

Of course, the casks are designed to survive a lot of wear and tear—high-speed collisions with locomotives, 2,000-degree jet-fuel infernos. But no matter how many precautions PFS promises to take, it’s hard to find anybody without a vested interest in the project who doesn’t think this idea is completely insane. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club, the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans, and 71 separate Indian tribes from across the country have all denounced the plan. Since the contract was signed, a third of the voting members of the Skull Valley Goshutes have either expressed opposition to the deal or joined a lawsuit filed against the Bureau of Indian Affairs for failing to adequately vet the reservation’s proposed lease. The Utah state legislature has passed two laws and one resolution in an effort to derail the plan, and Governor Michael Leavitt has bluntly told the two million residents of Utah that nuclear waste will be shipped to Skull Valley “over my dead body.”

Nevertheless, Chairman Bear and his supporters—Rex Allen, the secretary; his sister Mary Allen, the vice­chairperson (the Allens and Bear make up the three-person executive committee); and at least two-thirds of the band’s 70 voting members on and off the reservation—are convinced that a nuclear waste dump would make a fine addition to Skull Valley. As Bear sees it, if the federal government insists on turning the Great Basin into a radioactive petri dish, then why shouldn’t the Goshutes lend their diseased parcel of land to the project and get rich? On the downside, well, yes, adding nuclear waste to the region’s already volatile chemical cocktail is a dicey proposition. But on the upside, the Goshutes will finally get their piece of the American dream—a dream that has so far come at their expense.



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


Leon Bear is a stocky man. His long, black hair is braided into a ponytail that falls down his back, and most of the time he shields his eyes behind mirrored aviator-style sunglasses. One sun-drenched day last August, he greeted me at the Skull Valley Goshutes office, situated in a downscale shopping plaza on the south side of Salt Lake City (the suite is paid for with money from PFS). Bear offered me a Coke, then we hopped into a dark green Pontiac, one of more than a dozen vehicles that the band has recently purchased, and drove out to Skull Valley.

The Pontiac’s dashboard console was stacked with CDs—the Doobie Brothers, Tammy Wynette, Super Nonstop Seventies Dance Hits. A small leather pouch dangled from the rearview mirror; Bear said it contains herbs that help protect him when he travels—”it keeps the animals off the road and the way clear.” I asked him if it worked any better than the radar detector winking from the dash. He chuckled softly, the mirrored coating on his glasses flashing, and replied, “I take any help I can get.”

Bear stepped on the gas and began talking about the tribe’s cash-flow problems. The Goshutes, he explained, don’t get much help from anybody. Aside from the subsistence checks some members receive from the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the state, one of the band’s chief sources of income, until recently, was the rent it pulled in from a rocket-engine test range located on the reservation about two miles from where Bear and his neighbors live. Between 1975 and 1995, the Hercules Corporation used it to test Delta and Pegasus satellite launch rockets. Then Hercules sold its lease to another aerospace company, Alliant Techsystems. Last year Alliant declined to renew its contract after Bear raised the rent to a level the company found exorbitant. So far, no new clients have come forward.

Bear knows the rocket test range and the land around it well. He grew up playing in arsenic-laced dirt in Stockton, a tiny blue-collar town whose residents now mainly work at the Tooele Chemical Demilitarization Facility, and after graduating from high school in 1974 he took a job as a security guard at the Hercules facility, watching over three hangars and a security booth. In 1979 he moved to the reservation with his wife, Tomi, a Paiute from Big Pine, California, setting up house in a cabin that had belonged to his grandmother. Bear renovated the cabin (it had no electricity or running water when they moved in), and he and Tomi raised two daughters. In 1986 he was elected secretary of the Skull Valley band, and in 1996 he became chairman, following in the footsteps of his father, Richard Bear, who had led the band off and on for much of the previous 20 years.

As a member of the executive committee, Bear has spent much of his time trying to attract economic-development projects that could bring jobs and money to the reservation. By and large, it’s been a story of failure. In 1993, the band invested in a glass and aluminum recycling plant that went bankrupt. Other proposed ventures have collapsed because of a conspicuous lack of interest. In the mid-1980s, the state made a bid to bring two major projects to the valley: an $8.3 billion Department of Energy supercollider designed to explore the substructure of atoms, and a $100 million gravitational wave observatory for the National Science Foundation. Both projects were eventually canceled. Mostly, though, the Goshutes’ efforts to promote commerce have foundered as soon as potential partners have gotten wind of the neighborhood that surrounds them. In the late 1980s, PepsiCo inquired about setting up a plant in Skull Valley, only to abandon the idea the moment it heard about Dugway. Soon after that, a local water company expressed interest in tapping water from the reservation’s springs. “When they heard about what’s out here,” says band secretary Rex Allen, 29, in an acid tone, “they joked about how we could design a label with a skull-and-crossbones and dye the water green. Everybody thought that was pretty funny. We never heard from them again.”


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



These experiences provided Bear with a harsh primer on the options his tribe faces. “We can’t do anything here that’s green or environmental,” he explained as we rocketed down Route 108 from Iosepa and shot over a cattle guard at the reservation’s border. The village consists of a one-pump gas station and convenience store that carries a rich variety of beef jerky and not much else. Up a small hill lay a cluster of modest homes. “Would you buy a tomato from us if you knew what’s out here? Of course not,” Bear said. “In order to attract any kind of development, we have to be consistent with what surrounds us.”

Bear pulled off the road near the knoll where the rods will be stored if his hopes are realized. It was hot outside, so he sketched his plans from the cool confines of the Pontiac. He pointed east, across the highway, where a patch of arthritic bitterbrush extends to the foothills of the Stansburys, and described how it would look when the fire station, clinic, cultural center, and police station are built there, along with 15 new homes for tribal members who will work at the storage site. (The project, he says, will generate 400 temporary jobs and 60 long-term ones.) On the other side of the road, to the west, is the 800-acre site where the concrete slab and the storage casks would be surrounded by two eight-foot-high chain-link fences. “There’s a lot of potential out here—it’s just a question of putting it all together,” he said, waving his hand across the windshield. “I know exactly what we need and how to get there. We need to promote the future. We need to move into investments. We need to be involved in corporate America. We can’t stay in the past.”

Even with the air-conditioning going full blast, the sun began to turn Bear’s car into an oven. As he pulled back onto the road, I asked if he was worried about the governor’s pledge to prevent the nuclear waste from being shipped to Skull Valley. “Look, the reservation isn’t a part of Utah,” he said firmly. “Utah doesn’t tax it, and has no business on it unless we invite them. Utah has to understand our position as a sovereign nation.”


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

When Bear says that Utah needs to understand something, he’s really talking about Michael Leavitt. Utah’s two-term Republican governor has the carefully buffed and polished look of a career politician. His jaw is square, his haircut is tidy, and he projects an earnest, corn-fed mien. The Gold Room at the governor’s mansion, where we met, was decorated with beautiful woven rugs, mahogany wainscoting, and paintings featuring Mormon pioneers even more wholesome than Leavitt taming the desert, hacking down trees, and gouging out irrigation ditches. The paintings did not include any Indians, but that’s not surprising. Nearly 70 percent of Utah’s population, including the governor, is Mormon, and prior to a softening of its racial doctrines in recent decades, the Mormon Church traditionally held that Native Americans descended from a lost tribe of Israel called the Lamanites, whose skin turned dark when they were cursed by God. It’s also not too surprising that the governor doesn’t like Leon Bear’s dumping project one bit.

“I’m not here to dispute the Goshutes’ sovereignty,” Leavitt told me. “But they are also neighbors. And simple ownership of a piece of land does not make it possible to do just anything you want when it can have a very detrimental effect on your neighbors. Utahans don’t generate nuclear power, we don’t consume nuclear power, and the bottom line is that we don’t want it here. What possible justification can there be to move a stockpile of lethally radioactive spent fuel rods from all over the country to a place less than 50 miles away from a major metropolitan center that didn’t create any of it? And what’s more, to do so at the request of a group of 116 people, when it is objected to strenuously by two million who live around them? The whole idea defies logic. Explain to me why this makes any sense.”

This impassioned stance against one segment of the energy industry might seem ironic coming from a governor whose efforts on behalf of mining, gas, and development interests have often placed him in opposition to the movement to create wilderness. (In 1996, he joined Utah’s entire congressional delegation in opposing the Clinton administration’s move to create the Grand Staircase­Escalante National Monument, where vast reserves of coal and oil are believed to exist.) Yet even so, Leavitt has been consistent in his objection to nuclear power and waste, a position shared by most Utah voters. Between 1951 and 1962, the Pentagon conducted more than 100 above-ground nuclear tests in Nevada that were timed so that the winds carried the fallout away from Los Angeles and Las Vegas and toward southern Utah. Today, thousands of downwinders suffer from leukemia, breast cancer, and other ailments.

Despite the fact that the federal government has paid $67 million in compensation to 1,338 downwinders and their families, the legacy of distrust shapes the way Utahans feel about the radioactive material Leon Bear is proposing to store in Skull Valley. Nuclear fuel rods—12-foot-long tubes made from a zirconium alloy and packed with thousands of pencil-eraser-size uranium pellets—are inserted into reactors in batches of about 200. Every 18 months, roughly a third of the rods become “spent,” depleted to the point that they must be replaced with fresh ones. For the next ten years, these spent rods will release enough radiation to kill a person standing next to them in a matter of minutes; the amount of time it takes to administer a lethal dose increases with each passing year, but it takes several millennia for the radioactivity to dissipate to the point that it becomes negligible. There are now more than 30,000 metric tons of spent rods stored at 103 active nuclear power plants across the country, and each year more are added. By 2020, the stockpile will tip the scales at 79,000 metric tons, enough radioactive material to fill a 24-foot-high warehouse the size of a football field. “This is nearly 20,000 times more radioactivity than was released at Hiroshima,” says Don Hancock, a director of the Southwest Research and Information Center, an environmental group based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “The threat of contamination is huge.”

Although a 1982 law required the Department of Energy to set up a high-level commercial nuclear waste repository no later than 1998, the projected location at Yucca Mountain—a ridge of volcanic ash on federal land northwest of Las Vegas and adjacent to the Nevada Test Site—almost immediately ran into setbacks. For instance, scientists discovered 33 geological faults in and around the mountain. (Nevada is the third most seismically active state in the country and has experienced more than 600 quakes within 50 miles of Yucca Mountain in the last 25 years, including a June 1992 temblor that shattered the windows of the Department of Energy’s field office, only eight miles from the site.) Critics also pointed out that the waste vaults are composed of fractured volcanic tuff, not the salt domes originally recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. At this point, the earliest date the mountain could feasibly begin receiving waste is 2010.

As far back as 1987, with problems mushrooming at Yucca, Congress set up the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator. Its mission was to find a “voluntary host community” willing to accept a storage site. Not surprisingly, since tribal sovereignty exempts reservations from many state and local environmental regulations, the office found most of its “volunteers” in Native American communities. In September 1989, Danny Quintana, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the Goshutes, informed the band’s executive committee of the grants being made available by the Nuclear Waste Negotiator. Bear applied for and received two separate grants, totalling $300,000, to study what it would take to make Skull Valley a viable nuclear waste dump. In August 1992, after using part of the grant money to visit reactors and storage sites in Europe, Asia, and the United States, the chairman introduced the issue at the band’s general meeting, and a majority agreed to offer up Skull Valley reservation land as a temporary storage site. The band believed that it had a serious shot at getting the deal. But in January 1995, Congress shut down the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator after several Western representatives woke up to the possibility that radioactive waste might begin arriving in their own districts.

This would have put a stop to Bear’s plans had it not been for Private Fuel Storage, which at the time was attempting to cut a commercial deal to store its nuclear waste on a reservation belonging to New Mexico’s Mescalero Apaches. After a bitter internal struggle the Apaches turned down the deal. In the spring of 1996, PFS, based in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, took its proposal to the Goshutes. That December, the Skull Valley executive committee signed a contract with PFS. Six months later, they submitted their application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Leavitt was so incensed by the Goshutes’ move that in April 1997 he formed an Office of High Level Waste Storage Opposition, enlisting more than 30 lawyers and scientists from 13 state agencies to find a way to stop Leon Bear. When the two men sat down for a face-to-face meeting at the state capitol in the summer of 1997, Leavitt politely informed Bear that there was already too much waste in Utah, that people were frightened by what the Goshutes were planning to do, and that everyone would very much appreciate it if the band would “step away” from the project.

Bear listened and nodded, but refused to back down. He later suggested to me that the governor’s request might have carried a bit more weight if the people of Utah hadn’t spent the better part of the past 170 years treating the Goshutes like pariahs.


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


In Goshute lore, it’s referred to as “the sheep incident.” On the night of March 13, 1968, an F-4 Phantom fighter jet was flying above the Dugway Proving Ground in the middle of a snowstorm, testing a sprayer designed to mist an entire city with chemical or biological weapons—in this case, VX nerve gas, a single drop of which can kill a human being in under ten minutes. As the jet cruised at 500 feet, the sprayer’s nozzle got stuck in the “on” position and 2,730 pounds of VX were dispersed over the southern end of the valley, snuffing out untold numbers of jackrabbits, badgers, antelope, pheasants, sage hens, crows, and ravens, along with about 6,400 sheep. The Army sent in a team of technicians the next morning to assess the damage. Slit trenches were dug and the sheep were interred at several different sites, including on the southeast corner of the reservation. At the time, no one bothered to inform the Goshutes, or to ask their permission. But then no one ever has.

The catalog of injustices inflicted upon Native Americans over the last 500 years is long and shameful, but it’s hard to find a tribe that has been as extravagantly abused as the Goshutes. Between the end of the last Ice Age and the arrival of the first Europeans, the Goshutes roamed the Great Basin from Nevada’s Ruby Mountains to the Wasatch Range. The resources in this region are stretched so thin that to survive they had to move almost constantly, pausing only during the middle of winter in the Deep Creek Mountains, Skull Valley, and Tooele Valley. They used few tools, produced little in the way of cultural artifacts, and stayed a step or two ahead of starvation by harvesting 38 different types of seeds, including thistle, pigweed, hair grass, and yampa root, and eating grubs, lizards, beetles, and bread made from crushed ants.

Living in a place that white visitors considered an infernal wasteland, the Goshutes were seen as abject, almost subhuman. When Jedediah Smith, the legendary mountain man, first laid eyes on the tribe in the 1820s, he called them “the most miserable objects in creation.” Similar appraisals followed. “Those who have seen them unanimously agree that they of all men are lowest,” wrote historian Hubert Howe Bancroft. “In their persons, dwellings, and habits, they are filthy beyond description. Their bodies swarm with vermin, which they catch and eat with relish.” After encountering a handful of “Goshoots” during his journey through Nevada and eastern Utah in 1860, Mark Twain devoted a long passage in his book Roughing It to this “sneaking, treacherous-looking race…always hungry, and yet never refusing anything that a hog would eat, though often eating what a hog would decline.” He also produced an unusual theory on the tribe’s evolutionary origins: “The Bushmen of South Africa and our Goshoots are manifestly descended from the self-same gorilla, or kangaroo, or Norway rat, whichever animal-Adam the Darwinians trace them to.”

In the years after the first Mormons arrived in Utah in 1847, settlers heeding the call of Brigham Young took over the most favorable valleys west of Salt Lake City and stripped the few grassy basins by overgrazing their livestock. They cut down trees to build Overland Mail depots, hunted out the antelope, and seized the handful of wells and springs upon which everything else depended. Deprived of their meager resources, the Goshutes took to stealing cattle, attacking stagecoaches, and shooting Pony Express riders full of arrows, after which they usually made a meal of their horses. In return, the whites organized their own violent reprisals.

Within a decade, the tribe had been reduced to a starving remnant of fewer than a thousand. (There may have been as many as 10,000 Goshutes when the first pioneers came West.) Settlers reported seeing entire families lying on their bellies and cropping grass like cattle, and babies abandoned to be consumed by coyotes. Early in 1863, a group of warriors attacked three mail stations, killing several whites and setting off what came to be called the Goshute War. It lasted less than nine months. By October, soldiers from Fort Ruby in Nevada and Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City had killed more than 100 men, women, and children. The 650 survivors signed a treaty and were herded onto land in Skull Valley and the Deep Creek Mountains which 50 years later the federal government would declare reservations.

The two bands became docile subsistence farmers on submarginal agricultural land. Those relocated to the Deep Creeks, where the soil was slightly better and a few more inches of rain fell each year, managed to hang on (about 125 live there today). But by the 1960s, the Skull Valley band had only 15 adult members. “People just gave up,” says Bear. “They just got up and left. June grass moved in, houses fell apart. Skull Valley pretty much died off at that point.” Over the decades, as families dispersed, rituals and ancient skills began to disappear with them. A few older people, including Bear’s mother, Lillian, tried to maintain traditions like gathering chokecherries in the summer and pine nuts in the fall. “But my dad worked at the warehouse, of course,” says Bear, referring to the Deseret Chemical Depot, where chemical weapons are stored, “so we did most of our gathering at Safeway.” Today, of the 25 members of the band who still reside on the reservation, only four speak fluent Goshute. Chairman Bear isn’t one of them.


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.”


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

While the Skull Valley reservation hovers between poverty and a Kafkaesque version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the NRC’s licensing evaluation churns forward. “It got off to a slow start, but it’s going faster now,” says Mark Delligatti, the NRC’s senior project manager evaluating the Goshute-PFS proposal. “This is the first time we’ve had an application for an away-from-reactor storage site go this far.” That’s good news for PFS, which estimates that its power plants can save hundreds of millions of dollars a year in storage costs by dumping their waste in Skull Valley. “I’m optimistic that we will get approval and be issued a license,” says Scott Northard, PFS’s project manager. “The project will allow us to continue to operate nuclear power plants, which produce 20 percent of our electrical supply, and which do not produce carbon-based greenhouse gas emissions.”

Meanwhile, the beleaguered citizen watchdog groups that keep tabs on the nuclear industry are appalled by the prospect that shipments of spent fuel rods could soon start rolling through as many as 43 states on their way to Skull Valley, where they would be stored for decades and then moved again. “This is extremely lethal stuff,” says the Southwest Research and Information Center’s Don Hancock. “But the risk to the general public is immeasurably greater when you talk about putting it on the highways and roads and taking it to a place where the workforce will be less well trained than at the plants themselves. Catastrophic things can happen from accidents during transportation and handling. This is what we call a ‘mobile Chernobyl.’ “

The outcome of the fight will have an enormous impact on the future of the Goshutes, but its ultimate significance extends far beyond Skull Valley and touches upon a disturbing and often ignored dilemma at the heart of the permanent storage issue. If and when Yucca Mountain is approved, it will be able to contain a maximum of 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods, which means that if the United States continues to consume nuclear power at the present rate, by 2035 there will be an additional 30,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste to be dealt with. Similarly, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, the geological repository for military nuclear waste near Carlsbad, New Mexico, has room to hold only 2 percent of the weapons-related waste that now exists. According to Hancock and others, handling the rest of these combined materials will thus require the establishment of at least five additional nuclear graveyards in places like Skull Valley. That is, in places where the land—and the people who live on it—are deemed to have no value.

This broader perspective really doesn’t concern Leon Bear, who is tenaciously clinging to his vision of staging a Goshute renaissance on a springboard of nuclear trash. It’s a dream based on a tortured form of logic, but it is logic nonetheless. It also harbors a kind of perverse justice. One evening, as we were sitting around the tribal offices in Salt Lake, I asked him about Margene Bullcreek’s accusation that he’s gambling with his children’s futures. Up till then, Bear had never seemed to mind my questions, but on this occasion he clearly wanted me to think he was angry. He leaned back in his chair and fixed me with a sardonic stare.

“Look,” he said, “I’m not here to lay down and die like the buffalo. I’m going to do what I have to do to see that we survive. This is a survival issue for us. But in order to bring my people back to the reservation, we’re going to have to provide them with a livelihood. That means real jobs, real houses. As far as being traditional and protecting Mother Earth, I don’t understand how we can do that. There’s just no way we can go back to living out of a tepee. There’s no way we can go back to living off the land. Not with what they’ve done to it.

“What else are we supposed to do?” he demanded. “This is what they left us.”


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


A few months ago, I spent a night camping in Skull Valley. I drove out to White Rocks, where 4,000 of the nerve-gassed sheep were buried in 1968, figuring that if I took the time and thought hard enough about their fate, maybe I’d come to a better understanding of what the Goshutes should be doing with their land. What I realized as dusk faded to dark was that Skull is a place of austere beauty, so remote that its wild birds behave in a manner that seems almost tame—a place full of such profound silence that sometimes the only sound you seem to hear is the throb of your own blood pulsing through the arteries in your neck. I leaned back, stared up at a great bowl of stars, and listened to the droning of the crickets and the barking of a distant pack of coyotes. I started to forget about the dangers that surround the valley and got lost in the towering stillness.

And then the explosions started.






I scrambled to my feet and scanned the sky over the Cedars, which still bore vague traces of the disappeared day. I wouldn’t have spotted anything if those last rays of light hadn’t reflected off the silver skin of a plane cruising high above the desert floor, far, far out over the landscape. About once every minute, something would drop from its belly trailing a wisp of vapor that would curl and loop against the sky. The vapor threads disappeared behind the ridgeline, and after 30 seconds or so, another detonation would resound.


I watched until the plane disappeared and the silence returned, then rolled into my sleeping bag and tried to drift off.

A few weeks later, I called the press office at Hill Air Force Base and asked what I’d seen that night. “Oh, that was probably a B-1 bomber,” the spokesperson said. “They come up and train all the time. They drop some pretty heavy ordnance out there.”

They certainly do.   

A former staff writer for Time, Kevin Fedarko has been a senior editor at Outside since 1998.