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By Charles Lam
Photo by Johan VogelPut Governor Gray Davis down as a "no comment" on the question of whether California should allow the dumping of radioactive waste in Ward Valley, which is about 40 miles west of Needles in the Mojave Desert.
On June 2, the governor's office issued a press release saying Davis would not support predecessor Pete Wilson's legal crusade to pry Ward Valley out of the hands of the federal government and turn it into a nuke dump. But the press release was silent on whether Ward Valley was still under consideration, causing concern among some environmentalists that the governor may someday change his position.
In the press release, Davis said he would not appeal a March 31 Washington, D.C., court ruling that effectively killed a two-year-old lawsuit pitting Wilson and Idaho-based waste-disposal firm U.S. Ecology against the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In the days following that decision, activists looked to Davis for clear evidence that he would seize the stage and announce the end of the project. Instead, the governor and his staff refused to answer direct questions about the dumpsite, sparking rumors that Davis might still see a nuclear-waste dump in Ward Valley's future.
Some interpreted Davis' dilatory June 2 announcement—about two months after U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan threw out Wilson and U.S. Ecology's lawsuit—as a signal of the governor's uncertainty on the issue. Keeping with his previous, almost inscrutable silence on the future of Ward Valley, Davis' office took pains not to take sides in the debate over the dumpsite. "Rather than fight a long, protracted appeal over a divisive and controversial site for low-level radioactive waste disposal," the release opined, "Governor Davis believes the state must find pragmatic alternatives that are both environmentally sound and make good business sense."
That said, Davis went on to announce that he has already invited Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California system, to chair "an advisory group charged with proposing ways to find workable alternatives for California's low-level radioactive waste disposal." The group "will be made up of experts with diverse points of view, including academic, scientific, environmental and biotechnology experts, and representatives from the utilities industry and appropriate state agencies."
Reached June 3, Davis aide Michael Bustamante refused to say for the record that Wilson's project is dead, or even that Ward Valley will definitely not be on the list of potential dumpsite locations that Davis' advisory group may consider. "I wouldn't want to prejudge what they're going to do," Bustamante said. He also refused to say who might join Davis' advisory group.
The Alliance for Survival's Marion Pack said activists are also worried about the fact that Davis failed to invite a single representative of the Native American groups that opposed the dump. "People keep congratulating us about the Ward Valley victory, but it's not won until Governor Davis withdraws [Wilson's] land application," she said. "This is so frustrating."
If for no other reason, Davis' failure to reveal his intentions for Ward Valley seems noteworthy because so many of the project's most optimistic supporters believe the project is already dead. In a legal brief filed in November 1998 before the California Public Utilities Commission, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) described the dump as "unnecessary," saying that PG&E and other radioactive-waste producers could more cheaply dump their waste in facilities in Utah or South Carolina.
Similarly, on April 3, just a few days after Sullivan's ruling, Joe Nagel, president of U.S. Ecology's parent company, American Ecology, told the Associated Press that he had no plans to appeal the decision. "We are not going to press Governor Davis to appeal," Nagel said. "I think Ward Valley is over; Ward Valley is dead."
The battle over Ward Valley reached its peak in 1997, long before Davis took office, when Wilson and U.S. Ecology filed suit against the Department of the Interior as tension over the desert dumpsite grew into daily protests. Late that year, those anti-dumpsite protests mounted as environmentalists and Native American activists sought to prevent federal and state authorities from conducting scientific tests that would have paved the way for dumping. Demonstrators set up barricades, roadblocks and a tent city that was protected by a group of burly American Indian Movement bodyguards.
Coordinated by the Save Ward Valley Coalition and the Colorado River Native Nations Alliance, the protests ultimately drew to the isolated spot thousands of people, sometimes several hundred at a time. By 1998, a host of concerns about the dumpsite and proposed operator U.S. Ecology—which currently operates several leaking radioactive waste disposal facilities around the country—had found an audience in the Clinton administration's Department of the Interior, the agency charged with approving the transfer of federally owned land in Ward Valley to the state of California.
Chief among these concerns was a problem first noted by Howard Wilshire, an environmentalist and former U.S. Geological Survey expert, who was worried about the dumpsite's proximity to the nearby Colorado River aqueduct. Wilshire found underground cracks in the soil beneath the proposed dumpsite. If radioactive waste in Ward Valley leaked out of the concrete containers and into the soil—as has already happened at a similar U.S. Ecology dumpsite in Beatty, Nevada—it could make its way into ground water. And if that happened, the water-borne waste would flow downhill—the path of least resistance—to the Colorado River aqueduct, and from there into the drinking faucets of millions of people in Arizona, Mexico and California, including Orange County.