Natives speaking out on uranium
May 18, 2008
By Susan Smallheer Staff Writer
BRATTLEBORO — The recent spate of advertisements promoting the electric power generated at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant as "clean and green" doesn't tell the true story, said two Native Americans whose native lands are severely affected by the nuclear power industry.
Lorraine Rekmans, of the Northern Ojibwa people from Elliot Lake, Ontario, and Ian Zabarte, from Mercury, Nev., secretary of state of the Western Shoshone National Council, spoke in Brattleboro Monday night, their last stop in a weeklong visit to Vermont organized by the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance and Citizens Awareness Network.
Rekmans' home, which is located on the north shore of Lake Huron, was devastated by the pollution from 11 different uranium mines, which she said had turned 10 lakes in the area into radioactive waste sites.
For every pound of uranium, she said, there is a ton of mine waste, and the waste was dumped into lakes.
"People who get their power from nuclear plants should know that uranium doesn't just fall out of the sky," she said.
"Do Vermonters want their prosperity based on the abuse of other people?" said Zabarte, whose tribal council has gone to the United Nations to try and settle its dispute with the U.S. government.
Much of the Western Shoshone's tribal lands are now operated as the Nevada test site, and Zabarte said that it is increasingly polluted. "Safe? Clean? Reliable?" he asked.
Rekmans, whose father worked for the mining companies, is a Green Party candidate for the Canadian parliament. Her father died six years ago from exposure to the radioactive waste, she said. Her family got the $30,000 survivor benefit for her father's death from the government.
The uranium from the Elliot Lake mines was originally used for nuclear weapons for the United States, she said. The mines were opened in the early 1950s, and eventually closed in 1990, with an environment assessment by the government only launched in 1996.
"There was a boom in the 1950s, a bust in the '60s. A boom in the 1970s, and a bust in the 1980s," she said. She said the mines were operated by Denison Mines Ltd. of Toronto, and Rio Algom, of London.
Since the mines have been closed, much of the population moved away, and Elliot Lake has been turned into a low-cost retirement center.
Since the health and environmental effects of uranium mining have become better known, she said, only one Canadian province — Saskatchewan — still allows uranium mining and there are five mines there. British Columbia and New Brunswick have outright bans against such mines.
"Uranium mining causes cancer and silicosis," said Rekmans, who is the Green Party of Canada's aboriginal affairs critic. She now splits her time between Ottawa, the Canadian capital, and the Serpent River Reserve near Elliot Lake. She is a former news reporter and the former executive director of the Northern Aboriginal Forestry Association.
The uranium mining tailings look like desert sands, she said, and were a big attraction for recreation. The tailings need to be under water, to keep from becoming airborne and contaminating a bigger area, she said.
"We were never told 'don't hang out there,'" she said.
As a result, her region has a high level of health problems, and Elliot Lake is a community of 11,000 people, with 10 doctors.
The burden for nuclear power is falling disproportionately on native people, she said.
"We're bearing a disproportionate share; small remote communities," said Rekmans. "It's environmental racism. We were not aware of the risks. We were powerless to stop it."
Uranium mining was celebrated, she said. "Elliot Lake had a uranium festival. There were Radon Daughters," Rekmans said.
Rekmans said that she and Zabarte, a Western Shoshone Indian, were well-received in their talks throughout Vermont.
"Indigenous people are being exploited and victimized by this industry," she said. "But it was not in the forefront of their minds."
Zabarte, the secretary of state for the Western Shoshone National Council in Austin, Nev., said that the national nuclear waste repository proposed for Yucca Mountain is on Shoshone land, and is not part of the United States.
"It's called trespass," said Zabarte, who cited a 1850s agreement, the Ruby Valley Treaty, between the Shoshone and the U.S. government as proof that the Shoshone maintained ownership of their lands. "It's called occupation. How did Hitler do it?" he asked. "We did not cede land to the US. We did not abandon our rights. Why would be give up our sovereignty?"
Zabarte said the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe of Death Valley, which is close to Yucca Mountain, has recently been certified under the Nuclear Waste Power Act as an affected party and would receive funding, the same as the state of Nevada, to investigate the Yucca Mountain proposal.
"People just forget about us — out of sight," said Zabarte, who visited the Vermont Yankee reactor Monday afternoon.
The Shoshone's land claim includes much of the eastern half of Nevada, and spills over into California, Utah and Wyoming.