Utah's elected officials were taking a wait-and-see approach Wednesday on a federal lawsuit filed by the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indians and Private Fuel Storage against the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, alleges that those Utah officials put political pressure on the department to block efforts to build a nuclear-waste repository in Utah's West Desert. Spokespeople for Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett said Wednesday that they did not think it would be appropriate to comment on a pending legal matter. Two spokespeople for the Department of the Interior also said they would not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to strike the department's decision to block the creation of the nuclear-waste dump. The plaintiffs accuse the department of bowing to political pressure and killing a multimillion-dollar deal for the Goshute band.
Last September, associate deputy interior secretary James Cason rejected PFS' petition to lease the land to the storage facility. The same day, another Interior official denied a request by PFS for a rail line to ship the waste to Skull Valley.
In another petition before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that is on appeal, the federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., held back on a ruling until the department wrapped up its process, resulting in yet more delays for PFS and the Goshutes.
Many of Utah's elected officials lauded the rejections as a win for Utah residents. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. called the decisions a victory for Utah, saying the nuclear-waste repository was a "bad thing for Utah."
Huntsman's energy advisor Dianne Nielson said Wednesday that the governor continues to oppose building the nuclear-waste dump in Utah.
"I guess you can sue about anything," Nielson said, adding that the Interior Department's decisions were well documented and well grounded in supporting facts.
According to the lawsuit, PFS and the Goshute band allege that Utah officials interfered with the permit process by placing political pressure on Interior Department officials.
"Our point in the complaint is that the Department of Interior didn't follow its own policies and procedures and regulations," said PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin. Martin said while department officials were accessible by Utah's Washington delegates, such was not the case for Goshute officials, who struggled to make their side heard.
Skull Valley band attorney Tim Vollmann said the abuses by elected officials are well documented, and the lawsuit details some of those. "We think that's the tip of the iceberg and that there's a lot more to it," Vollmann said.State officials said it's too early to know what impact the lawsuit may have on the department's decisions. The federal government is expected to issue a reply to the lawsuit in federal court in about a month.
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