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Second Vote Throws Further Doubt on Plan for Nuclear Repository

March 10, 1995

MESCALERO, N.M. (AP) _ Emotions and uncertainty ran high as Mescalero Apaches cast ballots Thursday in a second referendum on a plan to create a nuclear waste storage site on their reservation.

A little over a month ago, the Mescaleros voted to kill the plan. But a petition drive collected enough signatures to persuade the tribal council to schedule another referendum.

Tribal officials expected a record turnout, and encouraged it by aggressively handing out information and offering rides to polling places. The daylong vote involved paper ballots, and results were not expected before Friday.

Observers from other Apache nations were enlisted to watch the counting.

``I think it’s going to pass this time around,″ said Silas Cochise, the tribe’s nuclear project manager. ``But I’m not sure.″

Rufina Marie Laws, an anti-nuclear activist on the south-central New Mexico reservation, also called the outcome a tossup.

She and another anti-nuclear activist, Joseph Geronimo, led a group with signs urging ``Vote No, Be Smart.″ Some tribal members responded by driving past and shouting insults.

Supporters’ signs reading ``Environmentalists Keep Your Green Hands Off Mescalero Jobs″ captured the economic concerns underlying the second referendum. Tribal officials say the plan will provide $250 million in direct and indirect benefits over the expected 40-year life of the project.

A vote in favor of the dump site would allow the tribal council to attempt to revive negotiations with nuclear utilities that wanted to use Apache lands to store tons of spent nuclear fuel rods.

On Jan. 31, the Mescaleros voted 490-362 to strike down an agreement between their leaders and some 30 utilities nationwide. At the time, tribal officials said they would accept the people’s choice and abandon the deal.

But proponents collected signatures from 710 tribal members asking for a second vote. The tribe numbers about 3,475, with about 3,200 living on the reservation.

Opponents of the dump claimed people were either coerced to sign the petition circulated by some tribal officials or that tribal leaders promised money in exchange for signatures. Tribal officials denied any improprieties.

Viola Morgan, who came to vote Thursday, said she believed the renewed interest would ensure passage of the initiative.

``I think a lot more people understand what’s going on now,″ said Morgan, who has supported the project all along.

But another voter, Nathaniel Chee, rejected the dump as too risky, saying: ``If something terrible or drastic happens, where are the people to go?″