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Let’s Blame the Natives

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Utah has always had a special relationship with American Indians. In the past, it was one of deceit and exploitation. Today, we prefer to use them as scapegoats.

Look at the record. For years, apologists of Utah’s 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre pointed fingers at the Paiutes. The Mormon militia killed the men of the 120-emigrant bandwagon, while the Indians did the dirty work of murdering women and children, they said. Now the latest forensic evidence shows that the Paiutes may have played a far less crucial role in the massacre. The tribe insisted all along that its participation in these murders had been grossly exaggerated. But for Utah settlers, placing blame elsewhere was hard to resist.

This tradition continues in more insidious ways. Consider the tactics of our now third-term governor. Again and again he’s said he’ll do anything possible to stop Skull Valley’s Goshute tribe from storing nuclear fuel rods on its land. “We don’t produce it. We don’t benefit from it. And we refuse to store it for those who do,” he’s said.

This, we’re led to believe, is what makes Gov. Mike Leavitt “environmentally conscious.” Indeed, the prospect of American Indians storing nuclear waste turns even Republicans into ostensible tree-huggers. Rep. Jim Hansen, an enemy of the environment if ever there was one, worries about fighter jets falling out of the sky and into a pot of Goshute nuclear waste.

So we blame a big, scary waste site on “greedy” American Indians who care more about the welfare of their tribe than that of the state. No one would argue that there aren’t serious questions about the tribe’s proposal to store nuclear waste. Meanwhile, though, our greater environmental problems get little debate. Leavitt’s said next to nothing about the Magnesium Corporation of America, which in 1998 spewed 57.7 million pounds of toxic chemicals into Utah’s air. And we wonder why we have the fourth worst air quality in the nation. The plant also produces dioxin, lead, arsenic, chromium and other “hazardous constituents.” For years, MagCorp. has been the nation’s No. 1 polluter.

Finally, after years of alleged rule-ducking, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is taking MagCorp. to court. But our governor says nothing. Then again, he’s not big on the EPA. A tireless advocate of the proposed Legacy Highway, Leavitt’s cast the agency as the enemy. Nor do we hear anything about MagCorp. owner Ira Rennert, whose Long Island mansion reportedly boasts a 100-car garage and 39 bathrooms. And we call the Goshutes greedy. Then again, Leavitt could use one of Rennert’s bathrooms. Our governor’s environmental policy is best described as crap.

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