The Mattaponi Indians - which include descendants of Pocahontas -
have long considered sacred the river that runs through their
reservation in Virginia. The annual shad run, in particular, is of
great cultural significance.
"We still fish the waters the same way we taught the early
settlers," says Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow, tribe historian.
"It's the last part of our living culture that we really have."
Now, however, the city of Newport News, Va., wants to transfer
water out of the Mattaponi River to support its growing population.
The result is a clash of old and new - ancient religious values and
modern water needs - that could set a precedent for how such
disputes will be settled in the future.
Indeed, the case may mark the first major test of how the Bush
administration interprets issues involving "environmental justice."
President Clinton signed a vague executive order in 1994 that
requires consultations with low-income people before large projects
can go forward that may effect them.
He made the move after investigators pinpointed what was termed a
"cancer alley" in Louisiana, where permits were frequently given to
refiners and industries in poor neighborhoods. Later, the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission used the order to take a second look at a
uranium enrichment plant proposed for the Bayou State. The company
ultimately gave up.
But President Bush has made no public statement on whether he'll
continue this policy. Now he might have to.
Starting this month, the federal government - in the form of the
Army Corps of Engineers - will try to sort out the Mattaponi clash.
A preliminary finding by the corps cited environmental justice as
one of the reasons to deny Newport News the permit needed to begin
Now, Gen. Stephen Rhoades of the corps in Brooklyn, N.Y., will
review the decision, and a 60-day public-comment period will begin.
"The fact that there is a preliminary decision of this sort means
there will be a lot of scrutiny of it," says Christopher Foreman,
an expert on the issue and a professor at the University of
Maryland at College Park. "Activists are looking hard for places
where there is some traction and areas where they can generate
favorable administrative precedent."
When the Army corps turned the city down, officials in Newport
News were stunned. "We tried to work with the Mattaponi and be
sensitive from Day 1," says Dave Morris, project manager for the
reservoir. He ticks off the things the city has done, from hiring a
local tribe member to identifying archaeological sites. …