Tribes fight contamination of rivers
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A federal judge last week refused to let the Department of Energy off the hook for changes in nuclear waste policy that tribes and environmentalists contend will allow the government to limit cleanup at contaminated sites.

In a 17-page decision, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Friday rejected a motion to dismiss the case. He said the government was only trying to delay resolution of claims brought by the tribes and environmental groups.

"The improper disposal of high-level radioactive waste poses a serious threat to the plaintiffs collective interests," Winmill wrote.

The ruling is a victory for the Yakama Nation of Washington, the Shoshone-Bannock Nation of Idaho and environmental groups. They are challenging an executive order, implemented during the final days of the Clinton administration, that allows the DOE to reclassify nuclear waste that sits at federal facilities in Washington and Idaho.

The government believes the order allows for speedier cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, where underground tanks containing 53 million gallons of liquid waste are leaking into the Columbia River. The Yakama tribes have treaty-secured rights to fish on the river.

Another federal facility, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), is also affected by the policy change. The Shoshone-Bannock tribes use the Snake River for subsistence and ceremonial fishing and are worried that waste will contaminate the water. Their reservation is about 40 miles downstream from INEEL.

In theory, Hanford and INEEL are supposed to send their high-level waste to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the nation's only approved repository. President Bush gave final approval last month.

But the tribes and the environmentalists say the policy allows the waste to left alone at Hanford and INEEL after being classified as low-level waste. Cleanup at a third location in South Carolina would also be limited, they say.

Winmill hasn't ruled on those claims although he said he couldn't find any provision in federal law that authorizes the executive order. "[T]he DOE doesn't have unconstrained authority to dispose of high-level waste," he wrote.

Up until World War II, the Hanford site was used extensively by members of the Yakama and Umatilla tribes for hunting, gathering, fishing and other purposes. The nuclear reservation was carved out of lands ceded by the two nations in treaties.

The Wanapum Tribe, which does not have federal recognition, lived at Hanford up until its creation in 1943. Area tribes are to be consulted on any decisions affecting the site.

The tribal plaintiffs are joined in the case by the National Resources Defense Council and the Snake River Alliance. The states of Idaho and Washington are participating as friends of the court.

Get the Decision:
NRDC v. Abraham (8/9)

Relevant Links:
DOE Order 0 435.1 -
Indian Nations Program, Hanford Site -
Cultural and Historic Resource Program, Hanford Site -

Related Stories:
Editorial: Tribes should win on waste suit (7/25)
Judge to rule on tribal waste suit (7/23)
Nuclear cleanup fund proposal doubted (7/12)