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Nuclear Waste Dump: Hot Topic In Desert

September 10, 1986|ALAN GOLDSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

TWENTYNINE PALMS — Through triple-digit temperatures, Susan Luckie Moore drove her old Datsun station wagon over a Mojave plain, pointing out desert scenery--cacti and creosote bushes here, rabbit and indigo brush there--and the possible future site of a low-level radioactive waste dump.

With the windows open, air conditioner off, Moore's green gingham dress fluttered in the wind. "I want to feel my environment," she said.

The daughter of an early Twentynine Palms developer, Moore, 70, has worked for more than 20 years to curb growth in this community, which has been booming along with the U.S. Marine Corps base that supports it. She has fought over zoning rules and against the installation of power transmission lines.

Now, as a director of the Morongo Basin Conservation Assn., she is opposing the potential locating of a low-level radioactive waste dump near Twentynine Palms.

Contamination Fears

Moore fears that such a dump might contaminate the community's precious water supply. She also is worried that road traffic, already heavy when the Marines take convoys of tanks and trucks to the streets, will get worse.

But down California 62 at Denyo Agency, a small advertising firm, owner Gary Daigneault said the dump would be good for the area. The office was cool, but Daigneault's blue polo shirt, stamped with the company logo, was soaked with sweat from a short hop outside.

"We need jobs here. If the next (federal) Administration cuts the defense budget, this place will empty out and we'll have a ghost town on our hands," said Daigneault, 35, who heads the economic development committee for the Twentynine Palms Chamber of Commerce.

He said his view is not popular in town: "There's a lot of people who say, 'The cities make that junk; let them keep it.' Well, there's a big difference between Sheephole Basin and Encino, folks. And the difference is, there's nothing out here."

Although it is still early in the site-selection process, the issue of where to place California's first low-level radioactive waste dump has stirred strong emotions.

To those drawn to the desert by its beauty, like Moore, the expanses of sand, brush and mountains are treasures in need of protection. Others, like Daigneault, talk more about economic issues. They want to develop the desert areas.

U.S. Ecology, a Louisville, Ky., company designated last December by California to choose, build and operate the site, has narrowed its choices to 18 huge dry lake basins in San Bernardino, Riverside and Inyo counties.

Two basins--the Sheephole Basin in San Bernadino County and the Saline Valley in Inyo County--will be considered only if no other sites are available because of their proximity to federal wilderness study regions, the company said. Other "high-avoidance" areas will be revealed next month at a series of public meetings in eight desert communities.

Based on such factors as road quality, available labor, environmental impact and community support, U.S. Ecology plans to narrow its choices to three locations by November, applying to the state for a license to build a single square-mile dump in 1988.

The dump is to be a repository for low-level contaminated materials, ranging from tools and equipment used in nuclear power plants to rags, papers, filters and protective clothing from commercial and medical processes.

High-level radioactive waste, such as spent fuel from nuclear power plants, is being stored in pools of water at the power plants, pending federal selection of a site for a permanent repository.

The state will have final say in deciding to grant a license for any site, which could be in operation by 1990.

Opponents are fearful of having radioactive waste trucked through their communities. Those who have researched U.S. Ecology's background are concerned about containment problems that the company has had at dumps in other states. And they fear harming the desert.

"We're not willing to prostitute our land," said Mary Sinclair, who manages the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce office. (Lone Pine is just east of the High Sierra, near Mt. Whitney.) "We don't need it."

Chance for Jobs

Proponents see the dump as a way to bring about as many as 40 permanent jobs, aside from construction work for local contractors. They call much of the outlying desert a wasteland, and they minimize radioactivity's hazards.

"I smoke cigarettes and I keep my family in the desert, where the sun is strong and unhealthy," said Craig Mathewson, 36, branch manager for Provident Federal Savings in Blythe, just this side of the Arizona border. "I'm not going to be afraid of some gloves and smocks."

Dumping dangerous waste is the price a society pays for its technological advances, dump proponents say.

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