Umatillas question Hanford land transfer for economic development

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerJuly 6, 2011 

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation should get the right of first refusal if Hanford lands are deemed to no longer be needed, according to the tribes.

Tribal officials outlined their concerns in a letter to the Department of Energy in response to the Tri-City Development Council's request in late May that DOE transfer 1,341 acres of Hanford land next to Richland city limits for economic development.

TRIDEC, joined by the city of Richland, the Port of Benton and Benton County, wants the land to attract businesses to offset future Hanford staff reductions.

While most land at Hanford is planned to be used for conservation and preservation, the acreage requested by TRIDEC is identified for future industrial use under the Hanford Comprehensive Land Use Plan environmental study.

However, the Umatillas said the land use plan is not the "law of the land."

"Treaties are," the tribe said in a technical analysis of DOE land transfers sent to DOE with a letter from Leo Stewart, interim chairman of the confederated tribes board.

The letter is a formal objection to the transfer or lease of any Hanford land that affects the ability of the confederated tribes to exercise treaty rights or that results in the loss of habitat or natural resources, Stewart wrote.

The Umatillas have treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather on Hanford land and also are recognized as a trustee of natural resources at Hanford. The confederated tribes already have sacrificed the health of their traditional homelands so Hanford could contribute to the security of the nation, Stewart wrote.

"Fisheries, village sites, cemeteries, traditional use areas and sacred sites are located throughout Hanford," he wrote. He pointed out that Native Americans were living in villages along the Columbia River when white settlers arrived in the early 1800s.

DOE repeatedly has assured the confederated tribes that Hanford lands never will transfer out of federal control, according to the technical analysis.

"The CTUIR hopes that these were not merely words of convenience," the analysis said.

If DOE does declare land excess, it is required to offer the land to other federal agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to the analysis. The confederated tribes already have proposed a field station for botanical and restoration research on the Hanford land requested by TRIDEC, but were refused, according to the analysis.

The land use plan study, which designated the parcel for industrial use, was poorly done, the tribes' analysis said. It did not evaluate properly the environmental consequences or environmental justice, the analysis said.

The confederated tribes also are concerned that water-intensive development, such as industrial use and landscaping, is inappropriate for the parcel.

"Whether new wells would be drilled or water purchased from the city of Richland, water use is a growing concern," according to the confederated tribes analysis.

TRIDEC said in its proposal to DOE that the 1,341 acres it requested could support enterprises with 2,400 to 3,500 employees total. It already has had interest from an undisclosed international firm looking for a large site to purchase and invest $2 billion in developing a plant, TRIDEC said.

The 1,341 acres are in a portion of Hanford used primarily as a buffer area for parts of the nuclear reservation where plutonium production occurred. Before World War II, it was used for farming, according to TRIDEC.

DOE Hanford officials have 90 days to review the TRIDEC proposal and decide if transferring the land is in the government's best interest. DOE did not solicit the proposal, DOE has pointed out.

DOE has contacted the Umatillas to address their concerns, said DOE spokesman Cameron Hardy on Tuesday.

"We will continue to consult with the community and the tribes about the future use of Hanford land," he said.

It wants to open discussion about how the region can make the transition to a healthy economy as Hanford environmental cleanup is completed, he said.

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