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Political fallout rains on waste dump idea.

COACHELLA, Calif. -- Environmentalists and others who fret the prospect of a low-level nuclear waste dump near Needles, Calif., say their concerns are not being heard, leaving the Mojave Desert site hot with political fallout if not radioactive waste.

Recently, California Gov. Pete Wilson's administration reversed earlier agreements to conduct adjudicatory hearings on the planned 1,000-acre radioactive waste dump in Ward Valley. Those hearings would have spanned several months and likely would have stalled development plans.

"They don't even want hearings on it, that's how worried they are," said Ronald Van Fleet, who is helping to spearhead a letter and postcard writing campaign in California and Arizona to insist on hearings. A member of the Fort Mojave tribe, Van Fleet is among many Indians, environmentalists, scientists and others opposed to the plan.

The site would be operated by the California-based U.S. Ecology, a privately owned nuclear waste disposal company. U.S. Ecology's two other longestablished nuclear waste dumps, at Maxey Flats, Ky., and Sheffield, Ill., reportedly have problems with leaks.

Ward Valley opponents -- including Needles' mayor and city council -- are fearful for their water supplies and the safety of the nearby Colorado River. Some scientific studies focused on the area support their concerns.

Sierra Club spokesperson Michael Paparian told NCR, "We're concerned about the current configuration of the facility. We're not convinced it will adequately contain the wastes. ...Additional concerns are whether there are enough (cleanup) funds in the event of a (radioactive) release or the company going out of business."

The political background to the proposed dump is significant. During the Reagan administration, Congress passed a Low Level Waste Policy Act making each state responsible for its own radioactive waste. States could create "compacts" and open joint sites.

California moved quickly, with North and South Dakota and Arizona, to propose the joint Needles site. Ostensibly, the site would operate for only 30 years, and serve only those states.

However, with few other nuclear waste dumps nationwide, and with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission having powers that permit it to order any dump to accept radioactive waste from anywhere in the country, Ward Valley opponents are fearful that Needles would become a national dumping site.

There is also concern about the definition of "low-level" waste, because it can include radioisotopes (uranium and uranium byproducts) from nuclear plants with a half-life of 25,000 years.

The proposal developed out of the need to store the radioactive wastes of California utilities, medica and biomedical research centers. Many of these companies, along with U.S. Ecology, took part in a successful suit to avoid adjudicatory hearings promised to the California Senate by state Health and Welfare Services officials.

In the closing days of the Bush administration, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan tried to expedite the site's opening, but was prevented by three lawsuits: two of them filed on environmental grounds and one based on a potential threat to an endangered species (the desert tortoise lives on the site).

Ward Valley has developed into a contest of fast footwork, some of it political, some of it physical -- the latter meaning fleet-of-foot "spirit runs" to sacred sites by Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi and Lower Colorado River Indian tribes to publicize their concerns.

The political footwork is centered in both Sacramento, Calif., and Washington, D.C. In Sacramento, Gov. Wilson appears ready to "site" the dump so it can become operational under California Health and Welfare Services supervision. But the federal government owns the land and must first transfer it to California.

However, California State Controller Gray Davis has asked President Clinton's Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to delay the transfer pending adjudicatory hearings on the site's safety. Davis, a Democrat, is a member of the California State Lands Commission, which apparently can refuse to accept the transfer.

The commissioners are concerned that the cleanups become the state's responsibility. (Illinois is anticipating a near half-billion-dollar bill to clean up the existing Sheffield dump).

A spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Land Management told NCR that Babbitt is "reviewing the entire case," and BLM is reviving an environmental impact statement that was not finalized under the previous administration.

The BLM spokesperson estimated it would be late in the year before Washington made any decisions on the land transfer.
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Title Annotation:Ward Valley, California
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jun 18, 1993
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