WELCH, Minn., March 17, 2016 – Citing longstanding concerns about living next to a nuclear power plant and nuclear waste storage site, the Tribal Council for the Prairie Island Indian Community has purchased 112 acres of land near St. Paul, in West Lakeland Township. The parcel is located on the northeast corner of I-94 and Manning Avenue and is currently zoned for agricultural use. While the Community has no immediate plans for developing the land, the Tribal Council said its investment is a way to provide for future generations of the Prairie Island Indian Community.
“It is our responsibility to advocate for our Community, not only today but for the next seven generations,” said Tribal Council President Shelley Buck. “The federal government has failed to fulfill its legal obligation under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act to remove spent nuclear fuel that is piling up just 600 yards from our homes and businesses. While we continue to work diligently to protect and preserve our Tribal homeland and hold the federal government accountable, we see this first purchase of land in the metro as a way to position Prairie Island Indian Community for future success.”
The Prairie Island Indian Community reservation, located 30 miles southeast of the Twin Cities along the Mississippi River, borders the river and Xcel Energy’s aging nuclear power plant and nuclear waste storage facility; more than 39 casks of highly radioactive waste are stored outside the plant. A 2003 agreement with Xcel Energy, approved by Minnesota lawmakers, provided authorization and some compensation for the Community to purchase land away from the nuclear power plant.
“It is increasingly clear to our Community that neither the federal government nor the state of Minnesota has a plan to deal with an aging nuclear power plant or growing nuclear waste dump,” said Buck. “We have no choice but to look for safe land elsewhere.”
In addition to concerns about its nuclear neighbor, the Tribal Council said other challenges are forcing the growing Community to look for additional land. Flooding from the nearby Mississippi and Vermillion Rivers is an annual problem. The reservation has approximately 3,100 acres of land held in trust by the U.S. government, much of which is located in the 100-year floodplain and unusable for homes or future development. There remains a significant need to meet the future housing demands of a growing population.
Additionally, access on and off Prairie Island is not always possible. An increase in rail traffic, including trains transporting explosive crude oil, often blocks the only access point to Prairie Island. While the Community supports efforts to build a rail overpass to provide a consistent, safe access and evacuation route, that solution hasn’t been approved.
The Tribal Council said purchasing land away from Prairie Island gives the community safer options as it thinks about its needs from housing to economic diversification.
“We need to be prepared as we look to the future,” said Buck. “If something were to happen that caused our homeland to be unusable, we still need to provide for our Community. Owning land in a prime metro location gives us options we didn’t have before.”
Prairie Island and the Dakota Conflict of 1862
Prairie Island Indian Community members are descendants of the Mdewakanton Band of Eastern Dakota. The Mdewakanton, “those who were born of the waters,” have lived in the upper Mississippi river watershed near what is now Hastings, Red Wing and Lake City, for countless generations. The Mdewakanton occupied the west bank of the Mississippi from Northern Iowa to St. Anthony Falls and already had villages on both the Mississippi and the Minnesota River by the time Zebulon Pike reached the Upper Mississippi in 1805.
During the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux of 1851 the Tribe lost much of its land to the U.S. government – land that today makes up the lower half of Minnesota – in exchange for annuities, food and a 10-mile-wide strip of land on either side of the Minnesota River from Little Rock to Yellow Medicine River. Although the Dakota were to receive retributions and reservations along the Minnesota River, the U.S. Senate amended the treaties to eliminate the two described reservations and substituted undefined reservations to be selected by the President outside of the ceded territory.
The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux is considered by Minnesota Natives to be one of the most deceitful and destructive arrangements that left the Dakota people with no rights to their ancestral homelands and ultimately forced them into starvation and war. Because of the strife, the largest mass execution in America would follow – the hanging of 38 Dakota men at the hands of the U.S. Government in Mankato on December 26, 1862. The remaining prisoners, and 1,700 or more Dakota prisoners who had not been convicted of anything, were marched from Lower Sioux, in Redwood County, Minnesota, to Fort Snelling and were later transferred to Crow Creek in southeastern South Dakota where they were held in a concentration camp. While the Dakota were confined, Congress passed the so-called “Abrogation and Forfeiture Act,” which purported to invalidate all treaties with the Mdewakanton and forfeit their right to the payment of any annuities due them under those treaties.
“Because of the Treaty of Traverse de Sioux, many families faced countless injustices,” added Buck. “Our ancestors were evicted from the Prairie Island territory, forced into poverty and starvation, and suffered a brutal war and false imprisonment.”
A small group of Dakota maintained a presence in Minnesota during the dark years following the 1862 Conflict. By 1883 the Mdewakanton at Prairie Island were a growing community.
Federal Government Recognizes Prairie Island, but Flooding Significantly Reduces Territory
Following enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Mdewakanton at Prairie Island approved a Constitution and Bylaws, establishing the form of self-government that has since served the Tribe. Under the law, 414 acres were purchased by the federal government for the benefit of the newly organized Community. While much of that land is not suitable for development because it falls within the 100-year flood plain of the Mississippi River, the Community, nevertheless, was able to develop a small residential area that provided homes for a number of its members.
A few years later, in 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Lock and Dam No. 3 approximately one-and-a-half miles downstream from the Prairie Island reservation. Lock and Dam No. 3 devastated the Community’s land, flooding burial mounds, and creating an even larger floodplain which left the Tribe with only 300 livable acres.
Misled by Nuclear Neighbors
In the 1960’s poverty was prevalent on the Island, but the culture of home was redefining itself. The seeds of self-sufficiency were once again being planted when Northern States Power Company (NSP) approached Tribal leaders to explore using the land adjacent to theirs for power generation. The plant was originally announced as a coal and gas-fired power plant that was promised to provide jobs and generalized economic benefit to the economically depressed area.
“The story goes that a group of men in dark suits came to Community leaders and told them they were developing a steam plant,” said Buck. “NSP was sold the right-of-way to access to the plant for a very small sum by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That was the beginning of the end for the safety our Community because what was ultimately built was the state’s first nuclear power plant, literally in our backyard.”
By 1968 construction had started on the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant (PINGP), just 600 yards from the reservation. By 1973 NSP officially opened the first nuclear reactor, with the second reactor to follow a year later. The Prairie Island Indian Community would become one of the closest communities in the nation, if not the closest, to a nuclear power plant and eventually, a temporary nuclear waste storage site.
Federal Repository for Nuclear Waste
The 1970’s were a boon for the U.S. nuclear industry. In 1973 alone, U.S. utilities ordered 41 nuclear power plants to be constructed – a one-year record. As planning commenced to build up the power source, national conversations started on where to put spent nuclear fuel – a hazardous byproduct that poses a dangerous, long-term health and environmental risk.
Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, signed by President Reagan, which required the U.S. government to develop national nuclear waste repositories that would begin accepting waste on January 31, 1998. The U.S. Department of Energy began to search for a possible permanent repository, and by the late 1980’s, Congress designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the sole national nuclear waste storage site.
Facing unresolved spent nuclear fuel issues in the ‘80s and ‘90s, NSP announced the development of a dry-cask storage facility at the power plant, much to the objection of the Tribe. Just a few years later, the Public Utilities Commission approved NSP’s request and after extensive debate in the Minnesota Court of Appeals and Minnesota Supreme Court, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law permitting NSP to use 17 casks for nuclear waste storage.
Intervention on the State Level
The Minnesota State Legislature recognized the position the Tribe was being put in because of the federal government’s delay in creating a national repository. In 1994, to prevent future storage problems, Minnesota issued a moratorium prohibiting the expansion of nuclear power without a long-term storage solution.
In 2003, the Minnesota State Legislature and Xcel Energy, formerly NSP, agreed to annual payments to the Prairie Island Indian Community to help address its ongoing health and safety needs. Specifically, the amendments recognized that the Community would use settlement payments to acquire “up to 1,500 acres of contiguous or non-contiguous acres of land in Minnesota within 50 miles of the tribal community reservation at Prairie Island to be taken into trust by the federal government for the benefit of the community.” Through this legislation, the state of Minnesota formally acknowledged the imposition to the Community because of failed federal policy, and granted them authority to acquire off-reservation land for safe relocation purposes.
Storage Solution Stalemate
After decades of scientific research and $15 billion in investments by taxpayers, efforts to create a federally mandated nuclear waste storage facility at the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada were suspended in 2010. A year later the Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed the operating licenses of both Prairie Island reactors. Reactor 1 is now licensed to operate until 2033 and reactor 2 until 2034.
Today, more than 1.9 million pounds of nuclear waste, stored in 39 dry-cask storage containers, remain on Prairie Island. The stored toxic waste is expected to grow to a total of 98 casks of spent fuel generated by the plant through the end of its current operating license. Presently, there is no prospective site for a repository, let alone progress toward the construction or licensing of one.
“Our Community’s worst fear is that the waste will remain on Prairie Island indefinitely,” said Buck. “This fear is slowly being realized as there is no promising alternative and the waste continues to put the Prairie Island Indian Community at considerable risk while violating federal law.”
To complicate the safety implications of living on a floodplain and next to stored nuclear waste, the Community has witnessed a significant increase in rail traffic at Sturgeon Lake Road rail crossing – the only public access road to Prairie Island and its businesses. Currently more than 10,500 rail cars, some carrying hazardous materials, pass through daily, frequently blocking the only evacuation route off of the island.
New Chapter Begins with Land Purchase in the Metro Area
“Prairie Island remains our ancestral homeland and a location with significant spiritual meaning,” said Buck. “We continue to dedicate resources toward preserving our homeland for future generations; however, we don’t have sufficient usable and safe land to accommodate the growth of our Community.”
The Community sees this land investment as a beacon of hope to begin preserving acreage for future generations away from the nuclear generating plant and the nuclear waste storage facility. While the Community has no immediate plans for development, use will be consistent with the intent expressed in the agreement with Xcel Energy and acknowledged in the 2003 legislation.
“When the state authorized Xcel Energy to store nuclear waste next to our Community we opposed it and were told it would not be permanent; now we must prepare for the likelihood that the nuclear waste will never leave,” said Buck. “Buying land elsewhere is an investment in our future. It’s not fair to our Community to sit idle and hope for a solution to the nuclear waste storage problem to appear.”
About the Prairie Island Indian Community
The Prairie Island Indian Community, a federally recognized Indian Nation, is located in southeastern Minnesota along the banks of the Mississippi River, approximately 30 miles from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Twin nuclear reactors and 39 large steel nuclear waste storage casks sit just 600 yards from Prairie Island tribal homes. A total of 98 casks could be stranded on Prairie Island indefinitely unless the federal government fulfills its commitment to create a permanent storage solution. The only evacuation route off Prairie Island is frequently blocked by passing trains. The Tribe has been pushing for the removal of the nuclear waste since 1994 when Xcel Energy was first allowed to store the waste near its reservation. On the web: www.prairieisland.org.
Media contact: Stacey Rammer | 612-702-1147 | SRammer@webershandwick.com