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Nuke plant draws tribe's ire

Johnny Johnson, Prairie Island Indian Community Tribal Council vice president, listens Friday as other community members speak during a rally opposing Xcel Energy's expansion plans at the nearby nuclear plant.

WELCH - Jeremy Garcia no longer lives 600 yards from two nuclear reactors.

But the St. Paul resident grew up in the Prairie Island Indian Community and he says the nuclear plant still affects him and his family.

"I'm sick and tired of Xcel over here killing relatives of mine," Garcia said, claiming the nuke plant has played a role in the development of cancer in several of his relatives. "It's gotta go."

Garcia and more than 40 other tribal members rallied Friday morning against Xcel Energy's plans to expand nuclear generating capacity and increase nuclear waste storage at the nuclear plant.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission earlier this month OK'd Xcel's request to house up to 35 more dry storage casks and produce 64 additional megawatts of output at the plant.

Xcel Energy is also seeking federal approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to relicense the plant for 20 more years.

Supporters of nuclear energy say it is safe, reliable and cost effective.

Opponents argue there are long-term health and environmental risks associated with the energy source and that relicensing plants is irresponsible until officials find a permanent home for nuclear waste.

Tribal Council President Ron Johnson said the community is not against nuclear energy, just storing waste permanently near communities like theirs.

"Our message is here, it's real," Johnson said. "We need to let the power plant know we're going nowhere. This is our ancestral lands."

JoDee Gamst, Prairie Island's government relations specialist, agreed.

"The Prairie Island Indian Community has never been anti-nuclear. We are anti nuclear waste."

Friday's rally coincided with the first-ever Native American Heritage Day.

As a way of honoring their ancestors and protecting the community, officials urged tribal members to contact state legislators and continue voicing opposition to Xcel's plans.

Tribal officials said they recently learned that burial mounds were desecrated and handled improperly when the plant was built.

The discovery is a big blow to community members.

"That wound is still there," tribal elder Byron White said. "That hole they dug is still there."

Had the PUC denied Xcel's expansion plans, Xcel would be have been forced to shut down the nuclear plant when their current operating licenses expire in the next five years.

The plan cannot be implemented until legislators have the chance to review it next session.