Floods and nuclear waste eat away at a tribe’s ancestral home

Floods and nuclear waste eat away at a tribe’s ancestral home

For decades, chronic flooding and nuclear waste have affected the ancestral lands of southeastern Minnesota that the Prairie Island Indian Community calls home, reducing them to about a third of their original size.

Two years after the tribe gained federal recognition in 1936, the Army Corps of Engineers installed a lock-and-dam system just south along the Mississippi River. The tribe’s lands were repeatedly flooded, including burial mounds, leaving members only 300 habitable acres.

Decades later, a stockpile of nuclear waste from a power plant adjacent to the reserve, which the federal government had failed to fulfill in the 1990s after a promise to dispose of it, has tripled in size. It comes within 600 meters of some residents’ homes.

With no space to develop more housing on the reserve, more than 150 tribesmen eager to live in their family home are on a waiting list.

Cody Whitebear, 33, who serves as the federal government relations specialist, is one of those waiting. He hopes he can inherit his grandmother’s house, which is on the road closest to the power plant.

“I never had a chance to live on the reserve, be part of the community,” said Mr Whitebear, who began connecting with his heritage after the birth of his son, Cayden. “When I was in my mid-twenties, I had a desire to learn more about my people and who I am and who we are.”

With no resolution in sight, the tribal community is asking Congress to confide in about 1,200 acres of nearby land it purchased in 2018 near Pine Island, Minn., about 55 miles away. adding land further from the power station to its reservation. In return, the tribe says it will waive its right to sue the government over flooding caused by the dam.

Tribes exercise jurisdiction over land held in trust, including civil regulatory control. Certain federal laws and programs are designed to benefit tribal trust or reservations.

“Giving this land to our tribe in confidence is crucial to righting the historical and current wrongs against our people,” said Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Island Tribal Council. “The federal government has put our tribe in this dangerous and untenable position, and it is the government’s responsibility to address the damage it has caused. The trust land would provide a safer alternative location for our members to live and work. Its importance cannot be underestimated.”

Interviews and documents obtained by The New York Times show how the state of Minnesota and the federal government ignored warnings about potential danger to the tribe as they continued to expand the amount of waste stored on the reservation and did little to mitigate the annual flooding. suits that harms the tribe’s economy.

“I mean, this is a classic environmental justice factual pattern,” said Heather Sibbison, president of Denton’s Native American Law and Policy Practice at Denton’s Law Firm. “We have a minority community, a disadvantaged community, that is taking the brunt of two massive infrastructure projects that serve other people.”

The tribal community is home to descendants of the Mdewakanton Band of Eastern Dakota, who lived in the southern half of Minnesota. Unfulfilled promises by white settlers led to the Dakota War of 1862. That year, the U.S. government hanged 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, invalidated a land treaty, and expelled the Dakota from the region.

In 1934, the federal government recognized the Prairie Island Indian Community as a reservation, after members of the Mdewakanton Band spent decades returning to the region and purchasing plots of land.

Today, much of the land that the government gave to the tribe is under water. But the tribe’s biggest fear is a nuclear power plant disaster or a toxic train derailment requiring evacuation, said Jon Priem, who oversees small law enforcement and emergency services on the island where the reservation is located. There is only one way in and out.

“We would be no match for something of that magnitude,” said Mr Priem. “Trying to get help here would be nearly impossible.”

As part of a temporary agreement that has become more permanent, waste from the power plant will be stored within the boundaries of the Prairie Island Indian Community.

The waste is stored in basins before being transferred to solid steel containers. Each is eight and a half feet wide and weighs 122 tons when fully loaded. Forty-seven jerry cans are stored on the island while the community waits for the federal government to take them away.

A judge in the 1990s opposed placing nuclear waste on Prairie Island due to a history of the government’s failure to find a permanent storage facility and a record of broken promises to tribal communities. The state and federal government allowed it anyway.

Documents show that in 1992 Judge Allan Klein advised the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to deny an application from Northern States Power Company, which later became Xcel Energy, to store the waste on land belonging to the Prairie Island Indian Community. .

“Once the barrels are in place, the path of least resistance is to leave them there indefinitely,” the judge said in the documents.

Despite the judge’s caution, the Minnesota Public Utility Commission ruled that the utility company was allowed to store the waste on the reservation. It limited the number of storage vessels to 17, but in 2003 the limit was lifted.

Chris Clark, who oversees Xcel Energy’s operations in Minnesota, said the nuclear waste “is an issue we and the Prairie Island Indian Community have been working on together, clearly forcing the federal government to live up to their responsibility to use that fuel and take it away.” the island.”

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 assigned the federal government the responsibility to provide a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel. The government came to focus on a possible storage facility on Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but the plan has been shelved.

Speaking of the residents living 600 yards from the jerry cans, Mr Clark said: “We know they’ve described themselves as the closest community to spent fuel in the nation”, adding: “I have no reason to disagree with that and sure, it’s close.”

Xcel Energy pays the tribe for the land it uses, and together they lobby the federal government to take its responsibility.

In 2003, as a condition of expanding waste storage limits at Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island nuclear power plant, the state of Minnesota and Xcel Energy signed an agreement with the tribe to allay some of its concerns.

It made annual payments to the tribe of $2.25 million a year to partially help the tribe purchase up to 1,500 acres of new land within an 80-mile radius of the reservation that would be entrusted. Payments fell to $1.45 million in 2012, as the plant neared its original license termination date, but rose again to $2.5 million when Xcel Energy’s operating licenses were extended and storage limits were increased.

The tribe used the money to buy the second plot of land for $15.5 million.

When Lu Taylor steps out of her house, the first things she sees are high electricity cables and power pylons. Behind the towers is the nuclear power plant, which Ms Taylor, 62, says has been the tribe’s primary concern for generations. She grew up next to the plant; her children too, and she believes her grandchildren will too.

Members of Congress introduced the Prairie Island Indian Community Land Claim Settlement Act in 2019, which would confide in nearby land the tribe had purchased, but the legislation has not changed.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said the agency is committed to environmental justice in the Indian country and to ensure tribal communities have the land they need to provide a safe home for their citizens.

In the meantime, Mrs. Taylor, the tribe’s vice president, said that the floods and the stockpile of nuclear waste increased the risk that an accident would take everything from them.

“It’s a danger zone that can keep families away from their homes and distract us from our way of life,” she said. “It’s unthinkable.”

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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