Flood and eat nuclear waste at a tribe’s ancestral home

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Flood and eat nuclear waste at a tribe’s ancestral home

For decades, chronic floods and nuclear waste have encroached upon ancestral lands in southeastern Minnesota that the Prairie Island Indian community calls home, leaving them about a third of their original size.

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

Decades later, a stockpile of nuclear waste from a power plant next to the reservation, which the federal government reneged on a promise to remove in the 1990s, has tripled in size. It comes within 600 yards of some residents’ homes.

With no room to develop more housing on the reservation, more than 150 tribal members who are eager to stay in their ancestral home are on the waiting list.

Cody Whitebear, 33, who serves as the tribe’s federal government relations specialist, is among those waiting. He hopes to inherit his grandmother’s house, which is on the street closest to the power plant.

“I never had the opportunity to live on the reservation, be part of the community,” said Mr. Whitebear, who began to connect with his legacy after the birth of his son, Cayden. “In my mid-20s I had a desire to learn more about my people and who I am and who we are.”

With no solution in sight, the Aboriginal community is asking Congress to take into confidence the nearly 1,200 acres it purchased in 2018 near Pine Island, Minn., about 35 miles away. Adding land away from the power plant to your reservation. In return, the tribe says it will give up its right to sue the government over the floods caused by the dam.

Tribes exercise jurisdiction over land held in trust, including civil regulatory control. Some federal laws and programs are intended to benefit tribal trusts or reservation lands.

Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Islands Tribal Council, said, “Keeping this land in trust for our tribe is key to correcting the historical and present wrongs committed against our people.” “The federal government has put our tribe in this dangerous and unsustainable situation, and it is the government’s responsibility to remedy the damage it causes. The trust land will provide our members with a safe alternative place to live and work. Its The importance cannot be underestimated.”

Interviews and documents obtained by The New York Times show how the Minnesota state and federal government ignored warnings about potential threats to the tribe as they continued to expand the amount of waste stored on the reservation and allowed annual flooding. did little to address. damages the economy of the tribe.

“I mean, it’s a classic environmental justice fact pattern,” said Heather Sibbison, president of Denton Native American Law and Policy Practice at Denton Law Firm. “We have a minority community, an underprivileged community, who is bearing the brunt of two huge infrastructure projects serving other people.”

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The tribal community is home to the descendants of the Madeokantan band from East Dakota, who lived in the southern part of Minnesota. Promises made by white settlers led to the Dakota War of 1862. That year, the US government executed 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minn., invalidating a land treaty and removing the Dakota from the area.

In 1934, the federal government recognized the Prairie Island Indian Community as a reservation after members of the Medewacantan band spent decades returning to the area and buying parcels of land.

Today, most of the land given to the tribe by the government is under water. But the tribe’s biggest fear is a nuclear plant disaster or a toxic train derailment that would require evacuation, said John Priem, who oversees the small law enforcement and emergency service agencies on the island where the reservation sits. There is only one way to go.

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

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

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

In the 1990s a judge opposed the dumping of nuclear waste on Prairie Island because the government failed to find a record in history to find a permanent storage facility and broken promises to Aboriginal communities. The state and central government had allowed it anyway.

The documents show that in 1992, Judge Alan Klein recommended that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission reject an application brought by the Northern States Power Company, which later became Xcel Energy, to transfer the waste to the Prairie Island Indian To be stored on the land belonging to the community.

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

Despite the judge’s warnings, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ruled that the power company could store the waste on the reservation. This limited the number of storage casks to 17, but the cap was removed in 2003.

Chris Clark, who oversees Xcel Energy’s Minnesota operations, said that nuclear waste “was an issue that we and the Prairie Island Indian community have worked on together, apparently asking the federal government to take that fuel and Inspired to fulfill its responsibilities to close this island.”

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The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 entrusted the responsibility of providing a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel to the federal government. The government came to focus on a potential storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but the plan has been put on hold.

Speaking of residents who lived 600 yards from the canisters, Mr. Clark said, “We know they have described themselves as the community that is living closest to the used fuel in the nation.” He continued, “I have no ground to disagree with. And of course, it is close.”

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

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

It provided an annual payment of $2.25 million to the tribe, in part, to help the tribe buy 1,500 acres of new land within a 50-mile radius of the reservation. Payments fell to $1.45 million in 2012 as the plant neared its original license expiration dates, but rose again to $2.5 million when Xcel Energy’s operating licenses were extended and storage limits were raised.

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

When Lou Taylor steps outside her home, the first thing she notices are long power lines and high-voltage power towers. Behind the towers is the nuclear power plant, which Ms Taylor, 62, said has been the tribe’s top concern for generations. She grew up next to the plant; Her children did the same, and she is confident that her grandchildren will do the same.

In 2019 members of Congress introduced the Prairie Island Indian Community Land Claims Settlement Act, which would rely on nearby land purchased by the tribe, but the law has not changed.

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

In the meantime, however, the tribe’s vice president Ms Taylor said floods and nuclear waste stockpiles increased the accident risk and took away everything from them.

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

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