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Editorial: Bush punishes Indian Country yet again

Politicians in Utah are patting themselves on the back after the Interior Department rejected a lease for a nuclear waste dump on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation. They couldn't win on the merits so they took to lobbying the Bush administration, with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) boasting of a meeting with his old friend, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, a former senator.

"Utah had such a strong case in my eyes, so I did everything I could to make sure the administration understood my position," Hatch said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. "I felt pretty confident from the beginning that I could convince anybody this was not the way to go."

And so Interior went. In two decisions last week, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management said they would be shirking their trust responsibilities if they allowed the tribe to store to 44,000 tons of nuclear waste on less than 100 acres of their 18,000-acre reservation.

The problem is that the decisions are far from the role of "prudent trustee" claimed by Interior officials. The BIA document in particular smacks of paternalism and hypocrisy, and whose reasoning calls attention to the Bush administration's repeated punishment of Indian Country for the federal government's failures.

Take police protection, for example. Jim Cason, a non-Indian who has run the BIA for more than a year, admits that the agency has failed to carry out its obligation to provide law enforcement on reservations.

So does the "prudent trustee" try to find a solution to the lack of police officers on the ground? No, Cason simply rejects an economic development project for a tribe whose members suffer from sky-high unemployment rates.

"With limited resources to meet law enforcement responsibilities throughout the rest of Indian Country, it would be imprudent to approve leases that allow an activity that the Secretary does not have the resources to support," Cason wrote.

Translation: It's easier on us if you stay poor and jobless. Find a project that doesn't make us do any work.

Another troubling aspect of Cason's decision comes in the form of Yucca Mountain, the federal government's official nuclear waste repository. Located on Western Shoshone treaty land in Nevada, the project is so far behind schedule that's it's not clear when it will open.

So what does the "prudent trustee" do? He tells the tribe that its project has to be denied because politicians and bureaucrats can't get their act together and carry out a federal law passed way back in 1982 that mandated a U.S. nuclear dump.

Translation: We screwed up. So you don't get anything.

Not every Goshute is unhappy with the rejection of the lease. Some tribal members have been fighting their chairman, who recently declared himself "chief for life," for years over this project and other issues.

Their voices deserve to be heard, particularly by their "prudent trustee." But that's not what happened here. Interior punished the tribe for the federal government's failures.

Tragically, it's a familiar tale in Indian Country. Remember the $3 million that Cason stole from the BIA to pay for the Cobell lawsuit? It looks like this debacle won't ever end.

Interior Decision Documents:
Skull Valley Band Nuclear Waste Repository

Relevant Links:
Skull Valley Goshute Tribe -
Private Fuel Storage -