When Both Tribe and City Eye a River ; A Virginia Case May Be the First Test of How the Bush Team Interprets 'Environmental Justice.'

Article excerpt

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 the project.

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. …


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