Environmental Justice Case Study: THE Ward Valley Struggle

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Above image taken from Colorado River Native Nations Alliance, 1999.

The Problem

A proposed Hazardous Waste (HW) dump in Ward Valley California is a sacred site for many Indian tribes and the home of the threatened desert tortoise. The proposed dump would contain low level radioactive waste (LLRW) from hospitals and nuclear power plants. Low level radioactive waste is high volume, has low activity and a short half-life (Smithsonian, 95). In 1980, a federal law was passed that said landfills are sufficient for LLRW and that the job for siting dumps for LLRW was up to the states. California hired the Idaho-based company U.S. Ecology to handle the LLRW for California and three other states (South Dakota, North Dakota, and Arizona). The waste would be buried in unlined dirt trenches twenty-five feet underground and 650 feet above an aquifer, covering an area of 1000 acres. Opponents of the site fear that contamination at the Ward Valley site could occur. If the aquifer were to become contaminated, the Colorado River, which is 40 miles away, may also become contaminated. The Colorado River provides drinking water for 2 million people and livestock and also provides irrigation for crops grown in the Imperial Valley. Controversy exists among researchers as to whether contamination is possible. The siting would also violate the spiritual connection of the people to the land and interfere with religious activities of the tribes (http://www.alphacdc.com/ien/wardcron.html).

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In 1988, California contacted four dump operators to assess their willingness and ability to manage the proposed dump in Ward Valley. U.S. Ecology was last on their list because of their sketchy past involving the operation of other LLRW dumps. However, U.S. Ecology was offered the job because the other dump operators turned down the position. U.S. Ecology has a history of inadequate management of other dumps they own. Three have been closed due to leaks and water contamination in areas they claimed would not leak. One of the sites, Beatty Nevada, has similar geology to Ward Valley, but was shut down due to a leak that developed and the subsequent contamination of Beatty water (http://www.alpinistas.ucsd.edu/env/ward/ceilidh.htm).

In 1989, U.S. Ecology found Ward Valley to be an ideal site for the dump. They applied for a license and did an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) (Smithsonian, 1995). They contacted Cultural Systems Research, Incorporated (CSRI) to perform an analysis on cultural ties to Ward Valley. The results reported showed significant relations between the Indian people in the area and the land, including use for hunting and gathering, religious uses, a trade route and a habitat for sacred animals. U.S. Ecology chose to ignore this finding and did not include the information in their EIR, even though the EIR requires the inclusion of such cultural information. An obstacle for U.S. Ecology's dump plans was that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) owns the land. In order to operate the dump, the State of California needed to purchase the land. The last day former DOI Secretary Manuel Lujan held office, he signed over the land to California's Department of Health and Safety (DHS) who purchased it with funds from U.S. Ecology. The transfer could not take place without a state and federal environmental impact statement, so the BLM and California DHS conducted one in 1991 and found that Ward Valley would be a good place for the LLRW dump. However, a San Fransisco U.S. District Judge, Marilyn Patel, blocked the transfer. This was based on a lawsuit brought by environmentalists and Native Americans to invoke the Endangered Species Act to protect the threatened desert tortoise that lives in the Ward Valley area.

In 1993, three geologists working for the U.S. Geological Service (USGS), who are considered experts on the area conducted their own research of the area and found that the EIR done by U.S. Ecology was not thorough enough. They gave 6 potential paths of leaks that could reach the aquifer below the trenches, published in their analysis called the Wilshire Report (Geotimes, 1997). What this means is that the basin is not closed. The BLM and California DHS had concluded from the EIS done in 1991 that the basin is closed. The California DHS and U.S. Ecology questioned the concerns of the geologists, but nonetheless, Secretary Babbitt called for more studies. This backed the block to transfer the land from the BLM to California. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was hired by the Department of Interior (DOI) to do research on the area in response to the Wilshire Report. The NAS reported that Ward Valley was still a good site and that if contaminants leaked, they were "highly unlikely"(Science, 1996) to make their way down to the water table and eventually to the Colorado River. Based on the NAS report, Secretary of Interior Babbitt gave the go ahead with the land transfer.

Then in 1995, the dumpsite at Beatty Nevada (owned by U.S. Ecology) leaked. This resulted in Babbitt once again halting the land transfer. The DHS and U.S. Ecology sued the federal government because the land had supposedly already been transferred right after former DOI Secretary Lujan gave the approval. However, soon after the suit was brought, members from the Democratic Assembly and Senate leaders came across evidence of the possibility that the transfer was illegal. On June 17, 1998, Judge Emmett Sullivan declined to rule on the land transfer because he wanted to know what the holdup of the land transfer was about. (http://www.lexis-nexis.com/universe/document?_ansset=GeHauKO-MsSDAARGRUU).

To complicate matters even further, tritium has been found below the surface of Ward Valley, remnants of nuclear bomb tests done in the 1960s. The tritium finding debunked the earlier theory that radionuclides could be contained in the dry desert soil. In 1996, the DOI Secretary Bruce Babbitt called for a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) and for more testing on the tritium migration, to be done by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). Included in the SEIS was to be a more thorough analysis of cultural impacts of the dump on Indian people. This was based on the recently exposed information from CSRI's had previous report that had been buried by U.S. Ecology.

While all of the legal battles were going on, opponents of the dump being established in Ward Valley had been very active in voicing their concerns. Five Indian Nations have joined together as the Colorado River Nation Native Alliance (CRRNA) and includes the Fort Mojave, Colorado River, Chemeheuri, Fort Yuma-Quechan and Cocopah Tribes, as well as the Lower Colorado Indian Tribes. This alliance claim their descendents have come from Spirit Mountain, which is close to Ward Valley. Also, the desert tortoise, which the Mojave refer to as their brother, ties the people spiritually to the land. The tribes in the area had been active since the beginning of the dump proposal and have made commitments to fight the land transfer, the dump siting and any testing whatsoever on their sacred land. In 1995, they started a vigil in Ward Valley and it has not stopped. There have been encampments, Spiritual Gatherings, workshops and the use of direct action nonviolence to protest the desecration of the land.

In 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order #12898 on environmental justice mandating that "each agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States"(sited in Klasky). The Native American tribes and environmental justice groups have claimed that the dump siting is an act of environmental injustice. Also created through the Executive Order was the committee called the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC). NEJAC designated the Ward Valley issue as one of environmental justice. They recommended that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (who is the head agency on environmental justice) administrators meet with tribes and conduct an environmental justice impact analysis relating to health, social and economic impacts on the tribe. EPA has done none of this (http://www.enviroweb.org/wardvalley/html/ward_valley.html). The tribes "view the project as a violation of their sovereignty, land, water, cultural and religious rights, of federal trust responsibilities and of environmental justice mandates" (http://www.igc.org/envjustice/rep/klasky.html).

A lawsuit brought by Native American tribes and environmental groups in 1994 led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to designate 6.4 million acres for the protection of the desert tortoise-which includes all of Ward Valley. Along with the land designation, a recovery plan was formulated in which included the prohibition of landfills and of other potentially harmful uses of the land, in the protected area. Despite the protection efforts, the USFS still supports the dump. In 1996, Clinton agreed not to sign any legislation involving transfer of the land, and this is attributed to the efforts of the encampments and protesters. In the same year, the CRNNA applied to the DOI for recognition as a cooperating agency. This status would have given the CRNNA the ability to influence the ongoing SEIS. That status was refused, although the EPA and the BLM finally agreed for the first time to meet formally with the tribes to negotiate. On January 29, 1997, a variety of groups joined together to block the entrance of Ward Valley when the Department of Interior (DOI) tried to give a tour of the proposed dump site. On February 6, 1997, the CRNNA filed an administrative complaint with the DOI under title six of the Civil Rights Act, claiming the dump is a discriminatory act because it would harm sacred land of the native peoples. On February 13, 1998, the CRNNA began a spiritual occupation of Ward Valley the day the BLM tried to close the area to the public so they could do tritium testing. The BLM watched for 12 days as the people performed religious ceremonies, and an official burial of a European-American protestor. This burial officially made the Ward Valley area a sacred site in the eyes of the federal government. Finally the BLM backed out. Each time the government has tried to perform more tests in the area they have been blockaded. The occupation lasted for 113 days. On May 30, 1998, the deputy director of the BLM called a halt to the testing saying that whatever money and time spent on tests may be a waste if California couldn't legally buy the area, which is still being determined thanks to the judgement from Judge Sullivan in June. On October 7, 1998, protests were held at the U.S.E.P.A. headquarters and on November 20,21, 22, the Ward Valley coalition held a conference to "celebrate victories, develop strategies for the future, and to discuss the decision making process" (http://www.alphacdc.com/ien/wardvly4.html). The coalition was joined by indigenous people and environmental supporters from across the Southwest and Mexico. To date, the protesters have not let up and continue to develop strategies for effective blockage of the dump.

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Key Actors

U.S. Ecology

proposed dump operator

Former DOI Secretary Manuel Lujan

allowed the original land transfer

Judge Marilyn Patel

blocked the original land transfer

Lawerence Livermore National Laboratory

to perform tritium testing

National Academy of Sciences

conducted research into the Wilshire Report and came to the conclusion that Ward Valley was still a viable site for the dump

Bureau of Land Management

owns Ward Valley land

California Governor Pete Wilson

strong advocator of the dump

Department of Interior

USGS men

Howard Wilshire, Keith Howard, David Miller – raised questions on the reliability of the EIS used to make the decision that Ward Valley was a proper place for the dump and started the desire for more environmental tests

Colorado River Nation Native Alliance

instrumental in blocking testing and key protestors

Various public and environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Ward Valley Coalitiones

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Ward Valley is located in the desert of California, 20 miles from Needles, and surrounded by three Wilderness areas. It is an arid area, with a thick layer of "impermeable" rock, a thick unsaturated zone and "closed" regional drainage basin (which is under dispute). The problem is that most arid areas are complex and poorly understood geologically and hydrologically so any conclusion that these areas are safe for dumps is not warranted. The hypothesis that arid areas are the ideal sites for HW dumps has not been thouroughly tested, and is being refuted by the contamination at the Beatty Nevada site, as evidenced by the migration of the tritium.

The tribes in the area are the Lower Colorado Indian Tribes, Fort Mojave, Colorado River, Chemeheuri, Fort Yuma-Quechan and the Cocopah.

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Strategies Used

The opponents of the Ward Valley dump have been very successful with their protests, Spiritual Occupations, gatherings, and workshops. They have held many meetings and provided nonviolence training for any people who want to become involved in the protest. Vigils and ceremonies have also been held. Reverend Jesse Jackson has joined in the crusade, and wrote a letter to President Clinton, asserting that the dump siting is an act of environmental racism (http://alphacdc.com/ien/wardlett.html).

The guidelines used for on-site participation in the protest are as follows:

  • the insurance of open and respectful attitudes toward all people encountered
  • no use of violence, verbal or physical, toward and person
  • no weapons in Ward Valley
  • no damage to any property
  • no drugs or alcohol other than for medical purposes
  • keeping Ward Valley clean, removing all trash, and minimizing impacts on critical habitat
  • no touching of desert tortoises

    These guidelines are strictly enforced and anyone who is not willing to comply with them is asked to stay home (http://www.earthrunner.com/savewardvalley/swv3.html).

    The proponents have used tactics such as rushing the scientific process, pressuring the Clinton Administration, filing lawsuits, skirting the law and selectively siting scientific research that upholds their cause, while hiding evidence that is contrary.

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    So far, the testing for tritium has been blocked. The CRNNA have repeatedly tried to work with the federal government based on their status as a Nation but have not been allowed (http://www.alphacdc.com/ien/wardcron.html). They need to be allowed to have full participation on the issues that are important to them. Recognition of Ward Valley as an environmental justice issue should have already resolved the matter, and still can. The protestors have science, the media, and their hard work on their side. A solution for everyone would be to stop the production of hazardous waste materials, and for those who do produce them now to take responsibility, instead of externalizing the costs to the less powerful and the poor.

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    The Mojave and Chemehuevi people "claim Ward Valley is part of their aboriginal territory and that the protection of the landscape, the flora and fauna…is essential to the integrity of their culture and religion" (Klasky, Masters Thesis). Both tribes refer to Ward Valley in their traditional songs and oral tales. Petroglyphs exist there that are from their ancestors. Ethnohistorians, anthropologists and documents from Spanish and American explorers uphold the claim the tribes make on the land (Klasky, Masters Thesis). The Mojave assert that their people have existed in the area since "time immemorial". Locating a nuclear waste dump in this area would undermine the Native Americans cultural and ecological tie to the land, and would interfere with their religious rites. People of Color have already experienced too much discrimination and unequal treatment. Native Americans have been removed from their land and stashed on the marginal lands of the United States. Even the lands they do have claim on have felt the effects of being subject to governmental abuse through mining, landfills, and other such degrading activities. It is time that Native American tribes' sovereignty and rights are recognized and respected. Locating a dump on the sacred lands of the Indians, which have traditionally been occupied by their ancestors and are still used today, is a continuation of the cultural repression that has been going on since colonialism. The fact that U.S. Ecology buried the knowledge of Indian ties to the land shows that they are (the Native Americans) not viewed as equals with legitimate rights to the lifestyle and religion they chose.

    The Colorado river provides drinking water and is the "lifeline" of the tribes in the area, as well as for many others. Placing harmful substances in the position threatening to the water is not an appropriate place for industries waste. No matter how remote the chance of migration of chemicals and contamination of the water, that chance should not be taken when so many peoples lives are on the line. Maybe it would be different if all the people who are advocating the dump were the only ones that would be affected by it.

    In addition, Ward Valley is designated as protected area for the threatened desert tortoise. I recommend that the government stand by its ruling on this issue and not violate the designation.

    I recommend to those fighting the dump to keep up their strategies, and never give up. They should not be used as sacrificial victims so that the whole of society (or hazardous waste-producing companies) can put their trash somewhere. Recommendations for the California DHS and U.S. Ecology is to find a more appropriate place for the waste. Too much money and time has been spent already on a project that shouldn't happen. There is too much evidence pointing to the dangers of unlined trenches containing hazardous waste – especially when the result could be the poisoning of people and their land. U.S. Ecology has a shady history in managing their dumps, and cannot be trusted to manage this one safely and effectively

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    Information Sources

    Geotimes, June, 1997. "Is Ward Valley Safe?". Number 42, pg. 18-23.

    Engineering News Record. 1993. "Low Level Waste Sites Await Clinton Action". Vol. 230:3. Pg. 14.

    Klasky, P. "An Extreme and Solemn Relationship". Masters Thesis. San Fransisco California. May 1997.

    Science, September, 1995. "Radioactive Waste at Ward Valley". Number 269, pg.1653- 7.

    Smithsonian, May, 1995. "For Our Nuclear Wastes". Number 26, pg.40-8.

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