Media Disappoints in Covering Prairie Island’s Nuclear Waste Challenge

Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant (Wikimedia Commons)
Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant (Wikimedia Commons)

Recent news coverage on the Prairie Island Indian Community offers a great example of how mainstream thinking rushes to equate Native Americans with casinos while downplaying the history of injustice towards Native Americans and their ongoing plight.

Prairie Island recently announced it bought 112 acres of land near St. Paul, in West Lakeland Township. News coverage highlighted speculation that Prairie Island might build a casino there. It’s only lower down in the stories that readers learn that Prairie Island has a tiny and threatened land base. The community is buying new land because it might need to move to safer ground.

People have strong opinions about gambling. The casino rumors provide an emotional trigger for many readers. Getting less priority in the stories (again) is the Native American perspective. Prairie Island residents are worried about flooding and the stockpile of nuclear waste stored right next door. Those issues would be scary issues for anybody.

If the nuclear waste were stored in prominent neighborhoods of St. Cloud, Duluth, or Minneapolis, and people were increasingly nervous and angry about the lack of a long-term solution, that would be the headline. Because a small number of Native people are affected, and because they have no political power, their plight appears to be less newsworthy than a hypothetical casino.

Let’s start with a quick review of Prairie Island’s history.

The Prairie Island Reservation is a very small community on a Mississippi River island between St. Paul and Red Wing. The tribe has fewer than 1,000 residents, according the the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. They have approximately 1,800 acres held in federal trust, but that overestimates their land base. According to the Council:

In 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Lock and Dam Number 3, which flooded Community land including burial mounds and created a larger floodplain, leaving the tribe with only 300 livable acres. More recently, in 1973, Xcel Energy (formerly known as Northern States Power Company) began operating a nuclear power generating plant on the Island and now stores spent nuclear fuel in dry cask storage containers only three blocks from the Community.

The storage site now has 39 casks of radioactive materials. The Prairie Island Indian Community posted a lengthy explanation online about why it bought the land in West Lakeland Township. According to Tribal Council President Shelley Buck:

“The federal government has failed to fulfill its legal obligation under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act to remove spent nuclear fuel that is piling up just 600 yards from our homes and businesses. While we continue to work diligently to protect and preserve our Tribal homeland and hold the federal government accountable, we see this first purchase of land in the metro as a way to position Prairie Island Indian Community for future success.”

That information was posted on the tribe’s website in March. The land purchase should not have come as a surprise to anyone.

A 2003 agreement with Xcel Energy, approved by Minnesota lawmakers, provided authorization and some compensation for the Community  to purchase land away from the nuclear power plant.

So the federal government built a dam that floods their land. Then Xcel plunks down a bunch of casks of radioactive waste nearby. As partial acknowledgement of the hardship, the state allows the community to buy land elsewhere, at a safe distance.

So how did the media cover Prairie Island’s concerns?

On July 1, The Pioneer Press ran a story with this headline: A casino near Lake Elmo? Latest move hints at possibility. The first sentence is: “An American Indian community has taken the first step needed to build businesses — possibly including a casino — near Lake Elmo.”

The article says the announcement of the land purchase in West Lakeland Township “has led to increased speculation that a casino might eventually be built.”

Comment: The reporter discusses the issues of flooding and radioactive waste later in the story. But it is the casino angle that the paper deems most newsworthy, even though the legislature had approved the land purchase for an alternative home.

Other outlets, including the Associated Press, picked up the story. Here is how it played out in other publications:

On July 5, the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal ran a short item based on the Pioneer Press story. The headline read: Prairie Island band might add casino near Lake Elmo. The four-paragraph story included the following:

The tribe hasn’t said what it plans to do with the land, … though it played down options for a casino when it bought the property in February. Local officials are still considering it a possibility.

The tribe’s current reservation is near where spent nuclear fuel rods from the Prairie Island nuclear plant are stored, near Red Wing, and officials say they want to provide “safe lands for future generations.”

Comment: First, the columnist says in one paragraph that Prairie Island hasn’t said what it is going to do with the land — and in the next paragraph he says what the tribe is going to do with the land — “provide safe lands for future generations.” Saying the tribe “played down options for a casino” is a backhanded way of implying that is really their “secret plan.”

On July 7, City Pages ran a story headlined: Could a new casino be in store for St. Paul’s eastern suburbs?  Here are the first two paragraphs:

One hundred and twelve acres of golden real estate straddling Interstate 94 in the eastern St. Paul suburbs has a new owner. The Prairie Island Indian Community, proprietor of the wildly successful Treasure Island Resort & Casino near Red Wing, plunked down $4.4 million earlier this year for the parcel in West Lakeland Township, bordering Lake Elmo and Woodbury.

Tribal Council President Shelley Buck has repeatedly underplayed the specter that the 960-member band of Mdewakanton Sioux plans to build a casino at the site. The soft pedaling has served to heighten fears that it’s only a matter of time before the new neighbor is a boozing, gambling, and entertainment golem.

Comment: City Pages leads with the “golden real estate” Prairie Island now owns in West Lakeland Township rather than focus on that fact that their current home is bordered by nuclear waste casks. Yeah, I know it’s City Pages. But really? It says the land purchase raises the “specter” of a casino and “heightened fears” of a “boozing, gambling, and entertainment golem? What about the “specter” and “heightened fears” of a nuclear waste exposure? Seems to be a secondary concern.

KXRA, the Voice of Alexandria, Minnesota picked up the AP story July 1: Tribe seeks trust status for land, raising casino questions.

Yep, even a news site hawing automobile insurance picked up the casino story.

The Star Tribune came out with a story July 11 that said: No casino in the cards for Washington County, tribal president says.

I personally have concerns about gambling and how gambling addiction can destroy people’s lives. That said, this post is not a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on casinos. It is a critique of how we tell stories.

There never would have been this “casino” story if the state hadn’t burdened the Prairie Island Community with long-term proximity to nuclear waste and OK’d the land purchase. Alternatively, the recent headlines could have read: “Nuclear Waste Fears Have Prairie Island Planning New Home.” [Update: The Circle Newspaper ran a story in its July issue with the headline: Prairie Island Makes Evacuation Plans. (No on-line version available at the time we checked.)] Instead, the [main stream media] story gets told emphasizing a potential casino — in a way that makes it sound like Prairie Island is trying to pull a fast one on local officials.

I’ll simply close by saying that it’s too bad the media isn’t pushing the government as hard for long-term answers for Prairie Island’s nuclear waste casks as it did to get answers from Prairie Island about a casino.

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4 thoughts on “Media Disappoints in Covering Prairie Island’s Nuclear Waste Challenge

  1. I would imagine that “The tribe has fewer than 1,000 residents,” means that “The tribe has fewer than 1,000 members” or “Prairie Island reservation has fewer than 1,000 residents…” ??? PIIC has purchased quite a bit of land up and away from the reservation, but nearby, and one parcel that I know of along the river and mostly wetlands was incorporated into the reservation, that was 5 or more years ago. Land would have to be incorporated into the reservation land to be open for casino development, and that’s not an easy thing to do, here it required passage of a resolution by Goodhue County, so I’d guess it would require agreement of whatever jurisdiction where the land was. So there would be no surprise, it would be an open, public process for any land inclusion. For a more complete look at the history of dry cask storage, check out the 1994 Prairie Island bill (Ch. 641) where the compensation for PIIC was hijacked by “environmental” groups and turned into the “Renewable Development Fund” and look how that’s been squandered (so much to Excelsior Energy’s Mesaba Project, and that boondoggle was part of the 2003 legislation and deal). A post about nuclear waste should include notice of the “Consent Based Nuclear Waste Siting” DOE meeting tomorrow, 5 p.m. start at Mpls Hilton, 1001 Marquette,

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