NEEDLES — It is an unlikely prize, a hole in the ground where clothing, plastic gloves and medical supplies contaminated by low-level radioactivity can be buried for generations.
But a battle is brewing in the Mojave Desert over which of three dry lake basins will be selected as California's low-level nuclear waste dump. And the stakes for the communities near the chosen site are high.
As many as 40 permanent jobs would be created in the operation of the dump, no small catch for this dusty city of 5,000, just west of the Arizona border along Interstate 40, or for the other two communities in the running: Baker, 60 miles northeast of Barstow, and Trona, just west of Death Valley.
Indeed, the process has sparked competition between front-runners Needles and Baker.
"We want it more than Baker," said Larry DeAtley, who owns Needles Cold Storage, a food distributor, and is president of the Chamber of Commerce. "We're discouraging any kind of opposition."
Countered Lois Clark, co-editor of the Baker Valley News and owner of one of Baker's two mobile home parks: "We're elated we've been chosen as a finalist. And I hope we get it. We certainly need it more than Needles does."
The potential sites were chosen from a list of 16 remote desert locations by U.S. Ecology, a Louisville, Ky., firm designated by the state's Department of Health Services in December, 1985, to develop, build and operate the dump.
After more studies, a site will be chosen in 1988, and U.S. Ecology will apply to the state for a license to build. The firm hopes to have the California dump taking all of the state's low-level radioactive waste, now sent to dumps in Richland, Wash., and Beatty, Nev., by 1990.
U.S. Ecology heard plenty of organized opposition from environmentalists in areas it eliminated from the running, notably in Twentynine Palms. However, the company said it has significant community support from each of the remaining finalists.
"We've said from the start that public acceptance is most important," said Ronald K. Gaynor, a U.S. Ecology vice president and project manager for the California site. "We don't have to ram it down anyone's throats when other people want it."
In fact, Gaynor said, the firm has already determined that the Panamint Valley in Inyo County runs a distant third to the two San Bernardino County sites, mostly for environmental reasons. But support for the dump was so great there that it was thrown into the ring anyway.
"It would be a real asset to the people," said Robert Bremmer, an Inyo County supervisor. "It's long-term jobs, not here today, gone tomorrow."
Here in Needles, such an employer also would be welcome. For more than a century, freight trains chugging across the desert were the lifeblood of Needles. Now, the old beige depot in the center of town, a colonnaded arcade, is mostly abandoned by the Santa Fe railway.
And although Santa Fe still employs several hundred local residents, the number does not approach the 1,000 job holders the railway supported until the 1960s. Computerization and automation are responsible for the attrition. The use of refrigerated freight cars alone eliminated 300 jobs at the local ice plant.
The railroad has not been hiring for eight years. Many of the young people in town have little choice but to leave the area when they finish high school. If they are lucky, they go into the family business.
The only other choice is to work for minimum wages in any of the gas stations and fast-food restaurants that dot this place on the way to other places, serving truckers and tourists headed west toward Los Angeles or east toward Flagstaff, Ariz., and Albuquerque, N.M.
'No Future' for Youngsters
"There's no future for a lad here," said Chamber of Commerce president DeAtley, 47, a former Orange County resident who favors T-shirts and jeans and drives a white Dodge van with the bumper sticker, "My wife, yes. My dog, maybe. My gun, never."
Of course, not everyone in town is actively lobbying for the dump. The City Council has refused to take a stand, one way or the other. "I don't know enough about it," Mayor Evelyn Connolly said.
Some confess to a little nervousness about the idea of having anything with nuclear in its name coming through town, although most of the material, refuse from the nuclear industry, hospitals and laboratories, has a relatively short half-life of about 100 years.
But reactions such as those from Gene McCall, who worked at the ice plant until it closed in 1962, are more typical. "At my age, I don't think some gloves and rags can hurt me much," said McCall, 67.
Neither does Steve Zwerner, general manager for Silver Lake Properties in Baker. Silver Lake is by far the biggest employer in Baker, keeping 80 of the community's 500 people at work at its Bun Boy restaurant, two motels, country store and three gas stations.