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Prairie Island, Minn. — Audrey Bennett, the president of the Prairie Island Indian Community, remembers as a girl watching the nuclear plant grow on the banks of the Mississippi River. It was the late 1960s, and she lived in the fourth house along Edoka St., a row of tiny homes that form a border between the reservation and the plant.
"When the power lines went on line in 1965-'67, they put that playground there. It was made out of metal, and every time you touched it you got shocked, because you could feel the energy from the power lines," says Bennett. "You'd go down the slide and your hair would stand up, but back when you're kids you don't think about dangers."
She's thinking about them now. She's also thinking about what happened in 1994, when state lawmakers and the utility hammered out a deal that led to the construction of 17 dry storage casks above the ground, on Xcel property.
The tribe opposed the plan, and leaders tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a package with the utility company and the state. They asked for a second evacuation route, a health and safety study and, perhaps most significantly, they asked for land.
Now, the issue is coming around again as Xcel asks once more for permission to build more dry cask storage. Bennett says this time, the tribe wants results.
"Being the only community in the nation -- out of all of the reactors in the United States -- to only live 600 yards away from a nuclear plant with two reactors, and high level radioactive waste stored above ground, is very unique," says Bennett. "No one has to live that close, or with that fear."
Currently about 200 Mdewakanton Dakota live on the reservation just north of Red Wing. Most are 18 and under, and there's a waiting list of 100 families who want to move back. According to Bennett, roughly half of those newcomers would prefer to live on tribal land away from the plant.
But the logistics involved in securing a new reservation are complicated. The Indian community wants close to 2,000 acres within a 50-mile radius of Prairie Island. There simply aren't many parcels of undeveloped land that fit that description.
Joseph Campbell lives on the Prairie Island reservation. He's a former member of the tribal council, and back in the late 1980s Campbell initiated the push for land. He says in 1996, NSP -- now Xcel Energy -- offered the tribe land at the old federal arsenal in Arden Hills.
"What we found out was that the piece of land was more contaminated than where they are right now. Why would we want to move our people to another place that was contaminated? It just doesn't make sense," says Campbell.
That plan fell through, as did other land deals. But Campbell continues to believe it's possible. He says even more than that -- it's a necessity.
Campbell says he worries where community members would go if there was a disaster at the Prairie Island plant. He says that's what makes new land so essential.
"We're telling them this is what we need, and until they understand that -- they can't keep giving us nothing," says Campbell.
New land would require state and federal approval. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in the past the U.S. government has approved land swaps due to natural hazards like flooding, but never because of a utility plant.
Scott Wilensky, Xcel's state director of public affairs, says he can only confirm that discussions regarding providing the tribe with new land are going on.
"Generally speaking, we're trying to address community concerns that have been raised. But further details we've agreed not to discuss," says Wilensky.
Lawmakers are now considering plans to add more storage capacity at Prairie Island. Prairie Island President Audrey Bennett says the tribe must approve any changes to the 1994 legislation. She says Xcel and the state can expect legal action if they don't meet the Mdewakanton Dakota's needs.