Anti-nuclear history: Successful resistance against nuclear waste dump in Mojave Desert

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This is an extract from the Global Nonviolent Action Database. The article was published under a under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Thus, non-commercial copying and distribution without changing the text is allowed as long as the author is named. The original source is the case study by Fatimah Hameed.

Comment from Abalone Alliance:
One thing badly missing in this story is that the group that took the initial
battle on in 1990 was "Don't Waste California" during the most critical first
9 months, thanks to networking between John Goffman, a retired Needles CA.
physicist and the Abalone Alliance.

Native American and environmentalist groups block nuclear waste site in Ward Valley, California, 1995-2000

In March of 1988, U.S. Ecology, a national dump operating company, decided upon Ward Valley, California as the most desired location for building a new nuclear waste dump. Because this was federal land in the state, the government of California needed to buy Ward Valley land from the Bureau of Land Management in order to give U.S. Ecology the rights to build the dump. The Valley, however, is located in the Mojave Desert, an area home to an endangered species of desert tortoise considered sacred to a number of Native American tribes. Environmentalist groups were concerned about its possible contamination of the Colorado River due to the river’s close vicinity to the proposed dump. Through the early 1990s, a number of legal issues, including investigations on health risks related to the dump, delayed the process.

On 8 July 1995 activists of the Colorado River Native Nations Alliance (CRNNA) declared its opposition to the construction of the Ward Valley radioactive dumpsite. The CRNNA incorporated the Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, Cocopah, Quechan and Colorado River Indian Tribes, all of whom claim heritage from Spirit Mountain near Ward Valley. Environmental activist groups, such as Greenpeace and the Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition, allied with the CRNNA in their protests against the dump.

On 10 October 1995, the activists held protests at the dumpsite. Their occupation was a series of encampments to protect the land. Activists rotated in and out every few weeks in order to remain within the legal restrictions on camping according to the Bureau of Land Management, and these encampments continued on-and-off through the campaign.

On 14 December 1995, Native elders from the Colorado River tribes conducted a Spiritual Vigil at the Federal Building of Los Angeles. Through the vigil, the activists brought attention to the sacred importance of the environment to the Native American tribes of the area.

In 1996, the Department of Interior refused to grant the CRNNA status as a cooperating agency. This way, they would not have direct influence over the Department’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, an investigation that would record the cultural—in addition to the environmental—effects of the proposed dump.

On 29 January 1997, activists blockaded the entrance to the Ward Valley dumpsite, stopping the Department of Interior from touring the proposed site. The activists maintained vigils and marches in the area throughout and after this time.

On 6 February 1997, the CRNNA claimed discrimination under the Civil Rights Act due to the sacred status of the Ward Valley. Civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson allied with the Native American tribes on the subject of environmental racism.

After the Department of Interior issued an order of closure of the encampments and occupation of the land, the activists began a larger-scale protest. On 12 February 1998, the activists began another occupation of Ward Valley in protest against an eviction notice from the Bureau of Land Management. The Bureau wanted to clear the area in order to conduct more preparative tests on the land before building. Over 200 protesters gathered in encampments in the Valley around seven separate campfire sites, where activists gathered to sing and celebrate the Native American tribes’ cultures. The groups reached out for more volunteers to join the occupation through web pages and fliers.

On 17 February, the Fort Mojave Tribe decided to honor Stormy Williams, a late white environmental activist who had been a part of the Save Ward Valley Coalition. The tribe gave the activist a traditional burial in the sacred land. The non-Indian and Indian activists performed religious rites and prayers together, continuing to ignore eviction notices.

On 25 February, the Bureau of Land Management removed law-enforcement officers from around the encampments, backing away from the possibility of confrontation with the protesters. The occupiers remained until 5 June 1998, for a total of 113 days.

Even after the success and declared victory of the occupation of Ward Valley, the coalition of activists did not end their campaign. Instead, they continued to put pressure on government officials to follow through on their promise to shut down the dump, asking supporters to call and write to the governor of California, Gray Davis.

In April of 1999, U.S. Ecology and the state of California lost a lawsuit, allowing the Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit to refuse to sell the federal land to the state. On 14 November 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected US Ecology's appeal to force the U.S. Interior Department to sell the Ward Valley land for the dump, ending the threat of building the Ward Valley dump.

Research Notes


Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy:
Fatimah Hameed 10/02/2013