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May 16, 2003 edition

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Study looks at Indians' views on WIPP

By Victoria Parker-Stevens

Current-Argus Staff Writer

 

Sandy Straus holds a master's degree in mechanical engineering and a bachelor's degree in geological engineering. She is FEMA-certified in radiological emergency management and response. Straus co-authored an unpublished book about WIPP with Ian Farmer, Ph.D., also of ESRA. Farmer was a member of Westinghouse's WIPP Geotechnical Panel on the Effective Life of Rooms in Panel 1.

ESRA does risk perception surveys and communication studies, regulatory analyses and policy reviews, technical reports and assessments, safety training, disaster mitigation and litigation support in areas such as nuclear and hazardous waste, explosives, petroleum and gas, aerospace, mining and transportation.


CARLSBAD - Many tribal leaders in New Mexico have doubts about whether they are prepared to deal with the effects of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, according to a recently released study.

A Florida consulting firm - Environment, Safety and Risk Associates Corp. - conducted the study. It's the first of its kind, according to federal Energy Department officials.

Sandy Straus, company founder and president, said similar studies have been done in Nevada related to Yucca Mountain, a proposed site for high-level nuclear waste.

Since WIPP is up and running, it's unlikely the Energy Department would pursue such a study, according to Chuan-Fu Wu, senior technical adviser at the Energy Department's Carlsbad Field Office.

A continuous point of contact is maintained with leaders of the 10 tribal nations across the country affected by the project, said Greg Sahd, the field office's intergovernmental program manager.

They keep the department up to date on the status of their emergency readiness programs, he said, noting all tribes along WIPP shipment routes are prepared.

No outside funding was accepted for the ESRA study, which was meant to be objective, said Straus, adding she forbid its use by any special interest group.

Straus became interested in WIPP when she explored the topic in college, she said, and her fascination with the project resulted in a book draft. During the review process, Straus was asked if she had researched tribal issues surrounding WIPP.

That led to a survey of representatives from all 23 reservations and pueblos in New Mexico last year to look at how tribes view WIPP. Most, if not all, have an environment department, so those interviewed were either environment officials or governors, Straus said.

 

Among the results:

 

        More than 56 percent of the officials live near a WIPP transportation route.

        Of those tribes that are affected by the project, more than 69 percent of the officials felt their tribe was not adequately prepared to deal with the project.

 

        More than 34 percent of those along transportation routes did not feel they received essential training and education. Thirty percent reported while their tribe was trained, it lacked adequate equipment to respond to a radiological hazard.

        More than 47 percent were strongly opposed to high-level waste disposal at WIPP if Yucca Mountain doesn't open.

        More than 69 percent opposed rail transportation of waste to WIPP.

        More than 47 percent felt structural and security improvements would help at the site, and 52 percent had post-closure concerns. More than 56 percent felt further road improvements were needed.

 

        Forty-three percent said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks did not shape their perception of WIPP, while 39 percent said they worried about security at the site and on the road.

 

        Of those tribes affected by transportation routes, more than 21 percent said their tribe was not satisfied with the routes, while 17 percent said they had mixed feelings.

 

        Thirty-nine percent had mixed feelings about cooperation between the government and the tribe regarding WIPP.

 

Some of the apparent uneasiness with the government could have historical roots based on incidents of contamination of tribal land, Straus said.

Sahd said building relationships with tribes is vital.

"I'm very proud of the (WIPP tribal) program. I feel we have good relationships," he said. "Part of that badge of honor is maintaining respect for the sovereignty of tribal nations."

The Energy Department has cooperative agreements with tribes to provide technical and financial assistance and training to build up emergency response capabilities, Sahd said.

Each tribal situation is unique, with different needs and resources, he said. Some tribes have very few resources, while others have fire, police and environment departments.

Each tribe receives particulars about planned WIPP shipments and is provided with enough knowledge about WIPP so they can make informed decisions about their needs, Wu said.

"We work with them to determine what they want to do in terms of building hazmat response capabilities - what they feel their needs are and what we can do realistically," Sahd said.

He said some tribes are only interested in awareness level training, while others use federal funds as seed money to acquire equipment.

All tribes along shipping routes are considered prepared in case of an emergency, Sahd said.

While the focus is on emergency management, educational information is also provided to tribes along WIPP routes, he said.

Information is not tailored, he said, but all outreach is done through tribal officials in order to show respect.

"It's not our job to try to change minds or perceptions," Sahd said.

Straus praised the government's work in providing emergency preparedness training and equipment, as well as its educational efforts. But more can be done, she said.

"Perception is very important," Straus said, noting there are many variables involved.

In her study, risk perceptions were influenced by things like the quantity and quality of Energy Department interaction with tribes, road maintenance and traffic hazards, the economy, radiation awareness and technical familiarity, Straus said.

She said while many tribal leaders have visited WIPP, they have a limited amount of association with the site.

"The majority wanted more active participation," she said.

The study is just the first step, Straus said.

"There's a lot more to be done," she said. "I hope, through the study, the public is educated on Native American perceptions and possible risks."

But even more important is the incorporation of the tribes into future studies, Straus said.

Straus also hopes the Energy Department considers expanding its outreach work among tribes in New Mexico. More has been done as part of the Yucca Mountain project, she said.


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