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Rebecca Solnit on Nuclear Wars and Indigenous Struggle in the Wild West

From Carrie Dann, Western Shoshone Grandmother, & land rights defender.

FYI - Recent piece by Rebecca Solnit. As for the
Western Shoshone - Bush's new "distribution" will
not stop Western Shoshone from asserting our
rights and seeking recognition of those rights in
international and domestic legal forums, the
political arena, the media and the public eye.
Western Shoshone lands are not for sale.
Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit on nuclear Nevada

From Tom Dispatch
a project of the Nation Institute

compiled and edited
by Tom Engelhardt
www.tomdispatch.com

As part 2 of Tomdispatch's Hiroshima-Nagasaki
week of nuclear posts, I offer Rebecca Solnit's
latest tale from the Wild West where, unbelievably
enough, the government suffered a genuine setback
in its domestic nuclear wars. Solnit started
covering those land and nuclear "wars" in Nevada, that
"hole in public consciousness" as she calls it,
back in 1989 (and wrote about them in her second
book, Savage Dreams). She's still on the job. As
I've done before, I urge all of you to consider
picking up Solnit's most recent book, Hope in the
Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, a tiny
paperback that certainly changed the way I look
at our world and could do the same for you. Tom

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch:
The Wild, Wild Wars in the West
By Rebecca Solnit

In July, the Feds handed down to Nevada its
bitterest defeat and sweetest victory in ages; the
former, a termination of thousands of years of
Western Shoshone history; the latter, a reprieve from
an apocalyptic future as the world's biggest --
and maybe dumbest -- nuclear waste dump. In one
three-day period, Nevada's past got cancelled while
its future was salvaged. But this Indian war and
these nuclear politics are just part of a panoply
of glaringly weird things going on in the state;
there's a gold rush, a water war, and vast
military operations, just for starters, and all of them
are ecological bad news.

Nevada's invisibility may be as alarming as the
apocalyptic dimensions of its plight. The state is
a truly peculiar place, a hole in public
consciousness. Where else could you set off a thousand
nuclear bombs unhindered -- from 1951 to 1991 at
the Nevada Test Site -- while even most antinuclear
activists were arguing about nuclear war as a
terrible possibility rather than an ongoing regional
catastrophe? Once nuclear testing went
underground in 1963, and American babies stopped having
fallout-induced radioactive milk teeth, Nevada fell
off the map even as the nuke-a-month program
continued unimpeded for almost three more decades.

Western Shoshone Showdown

Across the U.S., the contemporary Indian wars are
invisible in part because most non-Native
Americans believe they all happened in the picturesque
past, in part because they're fought by other
means, in part because the mainstream media don't
give a damn. One of the most egregious of them has
been the ongoing battle between the Western
Shoshone and the federal government for title to most
of Nevada. It began in 1848 when the U.S.
government claimed the Southwest from Mexico, heated up
in the post--World War II era when the Shoshone
went to court to protect their rights, and may have
ended July 7, when President Bush signed into
effect the Western Shoshone Distribution Bill.

That bill dishes out money the government set
aside a few decades ago as payment for much of
eastern and southern Nevada. The area had looked so
worthless to the bureaucrats of the nineteenth
century that they drew up a treaty letting the
Western Shoshone, unlike most indigenous nations,
retain title to their lands. The bureaucrats of the
twentieth century realized that the best way to
seize title to Nevada was to pretend that the land
had already been taken -- back when it was more
affordable. Of course, you have to overlook the
fact that, as Western Shoshone bumper stickers say
of their homeland, "Newe Sogobia is not for sale."
The price set was $26 million or 15 cents an
acre, discount prices even for the 1870s. (With
interest, the sum to be disbursed is now $145
million.)

Reasonably enough, the Western Shoshone point out
that they never offered their land for sale and
many of them refuse to take the money. The
disbursement was made against their strenuous
opposition. (Others believe that $30,000 per person is the
best they'll ever get and are willing to settle
up.) The case matters in part because Western
Shoshone "traditionalists" have strenuously opposed
mining, military operations -- 20% of all
military-controlled land is in Nevada -- and nuclear
activities on their land. Though environmentalists
sometimes decry their cattle-grazing as destructive
to the desert, they look like far better stewards
of Nevada's arid lands than the federal
government ever has been. They have deep roots in the past
and are interested in the long-term future of the
place. Then there's the simple matter of justice:
the Western Shoshone are being stripped of their
birthright and their rights just as surely as any
Palestinian on the wrong side of Israel's Great
Wall of Intolerance or the Iraqis whose resources
have been redistributed to various American
corporations.

The corporations reaping twenty-first century
profits from the great Shoshone land grab and
already engaged in a gold rush in the heartland of
Shoshone territory aren't even American in most
cases. An 1872 mining law allows virtually anyone to
acquire public land for pennies in order to mine
it; the Toronto-based Barrick Corporation, for
instance, paid less than $10,000 for land containing
an estimated $8 billion in gold. Unfortunately,
we're not talking about the gold nuggets in pretty
engravings of the Forty-Niners. Barrick and the
other mega-corporations are mining microscopic
gold, dispersed throughout the subterranean rock
along the Carlin Trend in northeastern Nevada,
enough gold to make the state the world's third most
productive gold-mining region.

To get it, you dig up huge hunks of the
landscape, pulverize them, and then run a cyanide solution
through the resultant heaps, which pulls the gold
out. It takes about a hundred tons of ore to
produce an ounce of gold. Western Shoshone activist
Carrie Dann (whose ranchlands and family cemetery
have been ravaged by gold-mining) suggests that
whenever Americans buy gold jewelry, they should
get the slag that goes with it as well -- a
splendid, many-ton toxic heap for a keepsake with every
ring and ornament. It's toxic because grinding up
the bedrock releases other heavy metals in the
ground, which is why Nevada -- with less than 1% of
the nation's population -- was, until a court
changed the measurement standards in 2001, tops in
the release of toxic substances. Its annual
half-billion tons of toxics amounts to 10% of the
nation's total, and a soaring 88.7% of its mercury
releases; to say nothing of the applied cyanide,
which at least is an organic compound that breaks
down under the right circumstances. Mercury is
forever.

Water Wars

The environmental price of gold is pretty high,
and that's not even counting groundwater. But
groundwater counts too. Much of the Carlin Trend gold
is underneath the water table, so the mines pump
out vast quantities of groundwater in this driest
state in the union and discard it. They are, in
other words, mining water as well as gold, and as
recent attempts around the world to privatize
water -- by Bechtel in Bolivia, for example --
demonstrate, pure water is getting more and more
valuable. The elderly Western Shoshone activist and
mystic Corbin Harney had a vision about water
scarcity long ago and has made it a focus of his work
ever since. In Nevada's gold-rush districts,
water is being contaminated or dispersed into nearby
waterways, where it will run away, never to
return. According to Great Basin Mine Watch, Nevada
mines wasted enough water in 2001 to serve a city
of half a million people.

It takes thousands of years to recharge an
aquifer. To drain one, or even drop the water table,
creates "drawdown," the drying up of surface waters
that would otherwise feed agriculture, rural
communities, and wildlife. That's one of the reasons
why environmentalists and rural citizens are up
in arms about the latest plans to suck out the
water under White Pine, Lincoln, and Nye counties,
as well as rural Clark County for the benefit of
urban Clark County (aka Las Vegas). This conflict
is already being compared to the Los Angeles vs.
Owens Valley water war immortalized in Roman
Polanski's movie Chinatown. What Polanski's movie
didn't show is the dry lake bed breeding dust
storms, the habitat drying up, the ecological disaster
Los Angeles lawns and carwashes demanded (and
Mono Lake activists partially reversed in recent
years).

Currently, Las Vegas gets most of its water from
the Colorado River. In 1900, the city's
population was in the single digits; it had only made it
to about half-a-million when I started swinging
through in the 1980s to protest the nuclear testing
taking place 60 miles to the north; the city now
has 1.4 million people, almost two-thirds of the
state's population, and 5,000 new Vegans arrive
every month -- which is why the entire Nevada
congressional delegation is behind the water grab.
That's where the votes are.

Even the usually environmentally respectable
Senator Harry Reid is so behind the bill to start
building the two-hundred-mile Lincoln-to-Vegas
pipeline that he's threatening to attach it to some
larger piece of legislation bound to pass. "They
have enough water for the existing population,"
says Jan Gilbert, a longtime state activist. "They
don't for this explosive growth."

Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern
Nevada Water Authority, struck a different note when
she said, "The notion that we have a finite supply
of water, and when that finite supply is gone you
stop growing, is in the past." Welcome to Nevada,
driest state in the union, where water is
infinite; you can wait until the late twentieth century
to make things happen in the nineteenth century;
gold is cheap; and the future is radioactively
bright. Or was. Not all the news is bad.

Repealing the Apocalypse

Once again, it was the water that was the
problem, only this time it wasn't a shortage. Yucca
Mountain, it turned out, was all wet, and a truly
lunatic place to put seventy-seven thousand tons of
high-level nuclear waste.

The government created the nuclear power industry
with a promise to reactor operators that the
essential crisis of the industry, the dangerous,
exceedingly long-lived waste it produces, would be
taken off their hands. In all the subsequent
decades of nuclear power production, spent fuel rods
have been piling up in "cooling ponds" onsite,
while the operators waited for the government to make
good on its promise to get rid of the stuff
(mostly located in the population-heavy,
resource-light East). Three New England reactors are already
suing the government for failing to come up with a
dump.

For more than two decades, the Department of
Energy (DOE) has done everything it can to create one
of the most scientifically dubious dumpsites
imaginable, at Yucca Mountain, about ninety miles
north of Vegas on the northern edges of the Nevada
Test Site, where all those nuclear bombs were
detonated (and will be again if Bush has his way).

The initial plan was to compare sites in three
western states and choose the safest one, but two
of the states -- Texas and Washington -- had the
political clout to get out of the competition. So
the "comparative study" never studied anyplace
but Yucca Mountain, and yet the longer it was
studied the less suitable it seemed even for the
mandated 10,000 years it was supposed to keep us and
the waste apart (forget the quarter million years
the stuff would actually remain dangerous).
Somehow, this never seemed to stop plans from
proceeding. For a lot of geologists, the fact that Yucca
Mountain had, in geological terms, recent
volcanic activity and has very contemporary seismic
activity might be grounds enough for doubt. But the
DOE officials just kept lowering the standards,
fudging the facts, firing the dissenters, while
spending nearly $100 billion to try to make it
happen -- the cost of a nice, short foreign war these
days.

Nevada itself has fine activists who have stood
up to some of the atrocities, and the state itself
has vociferously fought the federal plan to make
it into what might have been the world's largest
nuclear waste dump. And for now, this time, on
this issue, they won, which is no mean feat. The
Yucca Mountain plan was nicknamed early on the
"Screw Nevada" bill, and the feckless plans to send
the stuff across the country from the mostly
eastern nuclear reactors is popularly known as "Mobile
Chernobyl." (Click here to see how close the
stuff gets to your house -- and within half a mile of
fifty million other Americans.)

Easterners imagine that the Wiley Coyote
landscape of Nevada means true inert dryness, and the New
York Times has seldom been able to resist
coupling the adjectives "sterile, empty, barren, and
useless" to any description of the place. But
underneath it is a surprisingly high water table that
could rise further in a changed climate, and
flowing through the mountain's billion fissures is
rainfall which leaches out the chemicals in the
rock, making a brew capable of eating through almost
any metal, including pretty much every metal
proposed for nuclear-waste containment.

Originally, the rock itself was supposed to
isolate the stuff. When it turned out that wet Yucca
Mountain was uniquely unsuited for the task, the
idea was that the metal containers would isolate
the waste. When it turned out that the leaching
would eat them away, the plan switched to little
titanium umbrellas on top of each cask -- so we'd
gone from protection by the thick mantle of the
earth to parasols in a couple of decades of study.
And they call it science.

The state's Nuclear Projects Office (which means
anti-dump) geologist, Steve Frischman, told me
long ago that they picked 10,000 years as the
period during which the waste must be isolated because
you can at least pretend to estimate geological
and climate changes over ten millennia; beyond
that, it's the utter unknown -- Nevada could be a
rainforest; its ancient lake beds could refill; and
God knows who's going to look after the stuff
then. The Western Shoshone? Among the more surreal
aspects of the whole Yucca Project have been the
many schemes to create warning labels for the
waste that would make sense to unknown civilizations
of the deep future.

But surprisingly, on July 9, two days after the
Western Shoshone Disbursement Bill was signed by
Bush, a federal appeals court ruled that the
standards for Yucca Mountain were wrong: the
Environmental Protection Agency should have accepted a
ruling by the National Academy of Sciences that the
safety standard should be not 10,000 years but
the point of peak radiation -- which could be
300,000 years away, long after the metal containment
casks have corroded into irrelevancy. Joe Egan, an
attorney for the state of Nevada, told the Las
Vegas Sun that this means "the department will have
to apply a standard that all their own evidence
says they can't meet."

This could mean the death of the Yucca Mountain
nuclear waste dump, though the decision could also
be appealed in the next few weeks and the
Department of Energy is rushing to get the place
licensed by December in what might be a last hurrah for
the Bush Administration. Senator Kerry has taken
a strong stand against Yucca (while Edwards, from
nuke-plant intensive North Carolina, has
waffled).

This is startlingly good news for Nevada.
Scientists have always said that Yucca Mountain was a
disaster-in-the-making, even leaving aside those 50
million Americans living within half a mile of
the shipment routes the Yucca-bound nuclear waste
would travel on for decades to come, or the 90 to
500 estimated accidents of unknown scale that
statistics suggest would take place en route over
the years. (Who needs terrorist dirty bombs when
our own tax dollars can supply them?)

When you consider the human rights abuses, the
squandering of resources for the benefit of the
few, and the lunatic decisions being made for the
long-term future of the state, the war in Iraq
looks a little like a decoy from troubles at home, or
a parallel universe with all the same
ingredients. Except that there's almost no opposition to
Nevada's impending catastrophes -- outside of
Nevada. But you can bring back another perspective from
Iraq too. One is that Goliath doesn't always win:
the David of local activists and the Nevada State
government has been fighting Yucca for decades,
and this round Goliath lost. Another is that if
you're tenacious enough, what looks like defeat can
change, and the Western Shoshone have patience
and commitment on their side.

Rebecca Solnit's 1994 book Savage Dreams dealt at
length with the Western Shoshone land wars and
with nuclear testing in Nevada. Her most recent
book is Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild
Possibilities

Copyright C2004 Rebecca Solnit



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great 14.Aug.2004 05:22

thanks for posting this

More of us should understand what is going on with the nuclear industry.
Good point: "when even anti-nuclear activists were worrying about nukes as a dangerous possibility, not a regional (I'd say international)
disaster". Still true today.
Indian Country's concerns are ignored by most activists who would rather worry about events taking place around the world, rather than what's happening at home.