Bill John Baker

It was a historic day in December when we celebrated the final removal of more than 10,000 tons of nuclear waste that have plagued Sequoyah County and its citizens for decades. More than 500 semi-tractor loads removed the dangerous substances from the former Sequoyah Fuels Corporation site near Gore. Our Cherokee Nation Attorney General’s office and Secretary of Natural Resources office collaborated with the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office to undertake this immense task.

The original uranium processing plant was opened by Kerr-McGee in 1970 and converted yellowcake uranium into fuel for nuclear reactors. However, over the years, the plant changed several times before General Atomics began operations as Sequoyah Fuels Corporation. Many of the residents who live in Gore and who worked at the site over the years are Cherokee.

Our tribal government has been involved in litigation over the Sequoyah Fuels site since 2004. I’m proud that Cherokee Nation took the lead in removing a risk that would have threatened our communities forever. This would not have been possible if the tribe and state had not worked cooperatively, presenting a united front in court to ensure removal of this material.

The removal process took 18 months and leaves the riverbed area where the Arkansas River and Illinois River meet free of nuclear waste for the first time in almost 50 years. Tons of radioactive waste remained at the facility when it closed in 1993 after multiple lethal accidents. In 2004, Cherokee Nation and the state of Oklahoma entered into a settlement agreement that required the highest-risk waste be removed from the site. The owners of Sequoyah Fuels Corporation announced in 2016 their intention to bury the waste on site. Thankfully, a judge forced the company to comply with the original agreement, clearing the way for complete removal instead.

This material is no longer a ticking time bomb on the banks of two of our most precious natural resources – waterways along the Arkansas and Illinois rivers. Our tribe’s natural resources remain protected, and the 41,000 residents of Sequoyah County will no longer be in harm’s way. The radioactive waste has been transported to a disposal site in Utah, where the uranium will be recycled and reused.

Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation’s secretary of Natural Resources, said it best: “Decommissioning this plant was never enough to satisfy our goals for a clean and safe environment…removal of this highly contaminated waste was our goal all along.”

Mission accomplished. Cherokee Nation will continue to step up, lead and forge the partnerships that will protect our citizens, families and communities for generations.

 —Bill John Baker

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief