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Umatilla Tribes File Intent to Sue DOE Over Hanford Issues

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 8, 2004

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy notifying it that the tribe intends to sue the DOE on issues at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The lawsuit will seek a court order requiring the DOE to assess injuries to natural resources caused by pollution from Hanford. The CTUIR hopes that the DOE will be ordered to study the injuries to natural resources at Hanford and then release the information for peer review.

In filing this notice to sue, the Umatilla Tribe joins the states of Washington and Oregon which have already sent similar letters. Federal law requires that "notice of intent to sue" be sent to the federal government at least 60 days before a party can file a suit such as this one.

"The CTUIR is not asking for money damages. We are asking the court to order the Department of Energy to openly assess the environmental harm at Hanford," said Armand Minthorn, a member of the Board of Trustees, the governing body of the tribe. "Only once we know the extent of the damage to natural resources, can we develop plans to restore those resources."

In July, Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire and Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers put the federal government on notice that they would sue the DOE if the department refuses to assess the environmental harm caused by decades of nuclear weapons production at Hanford.

In a letter to top federal officials, Gregoire and Myers said they would ask a court to order required assessments of environmental harm at Hanford if the federal government does not perform the assessments. Under federal law, the letter is required before a lawsuit can be filed.

While cleanup efforts have been under way at Hanford for a number of years, the federal government never has performed a thorough analysis of the harm that Hanford nuclear production caused to groundwater, wildlife and other natural resources, Gregoire and Myers said. Such an assessment, required by federal law, will lead to a better cleanup by ensuring the government understands the cost of failing to identify and correct problems, they said.

The letter followed the U.S. Department of Justice's rejection of both states' requests to join in a federal court mediation between the DOE and the Yakama Indian Nation, which is one of the natural resources "trustees" at Hanford. Washington and Oregon are also trustees.

In 2002, the Yakama Nation, in its role as a trustee, filed a Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act action against the DOE and the Department of Defense. The Yakamas asked for monetary damages or the restoration and replacement of natural resources damaged as a result of federal activities at Hanford.

Because Washington and Oregon citizens have strong interests in the Hanford cleanup, both states asked to join the mediation without having to formally file suit against the United States. The Yakama Nation welcomed the states, but the Justice Department rejected their request.

Scientists with the Umatilla Tribes contend that the contamination of the Columbia River with radioactive waste and other hazardous substances from Hanford could be contributing to the decline in Northwest salmon populations. The Umatilla Tribes possess fishing and other various rights to hunt and gather traditional foods and medicines on all their aboriginal lands, pursuant to their 1855 Treaty with the federal government. The CTUIR contends that any impact to those resources needs to be evaluated in an open manner so the Tribes can develop plans for sustainability of those resources.

The Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla people make up the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. As part of the 1855 Treaty the tribes ceded millions of acres of land, but retained the right to use natural resources found on those lands, such as fish, wildlife, and native plants. The Hanford area is included within these lands.

CBB Staff
Umatilla Tribes File Intent to Sue DOE Over Hanford Issues
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 8, 2004

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