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A World of Garbage

May 03, 1987

The wandering garbage scow with 3,186 tons of New York trash (actually, bound bales of industrial and business waste) is a pungent example of society's problem of disposing of its leftovers. The barge left Long Island on March 22 and has been at sea ever since in search of a place to unload. Various states and the countries of Mexico and Belize have said no. Mexico even ran the scow off with its navy.

Garbage is nothing to sniff at, but the nation has other trash that poses an even more difficult problem. The highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, for instance, still is piling up in ponds at each plant site, waiting for the nation to come up with a solution. Also a critical problem, in large part because there is so much of it, is low-level nuclear waste. This refuse includes relatively benign material like the gloves used by radiation specialists at hospitals and tools employed by the nuclear industry. But it has to be isolated and sealed away somewhere so that, among other things, concentrated radioactive waste cannot leak into groundwater supplies.

Fortunately, California seems to be nearing a solution for the disposal of its considerable low level nuclear stuff, which the state now sends to Washington state. A 1980 federal law requires that states work out compacts among themselves so that just a few will not become dumping grounds for all the others. After four years of deadlock, the Deukmejian Administration and Assembly Democrats have agreed on a compact with Arizona that would provide for the two states' low-level waste to be deposited in the California desert for the next 30 years and in Arizona for the enusing three decades. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista), deserves approval by the full Legislature and the governor.

In the meantime, US Ecology Inc. of Newport Beach is proceeding under a 1985 contract with the state Department of Health Services to locate the best and most acceptable site for the low-level waste dump. After rather extensive searching, and consultation with local officials, the firm has settled on three potential sites: in Ward Valley 25 miles west of Needles and in Silurian Valley 15 miles west of Baker, both in San Bernardino County, and in Panamint Valley 30 miles north of Trona, in Inyo County. Technical studies at the three locations will take another year. US Ecology plans to choose one of the three early next year. Final approval by the state would not occur until completion of an environmental-impact report and formal hearings.

The selection of US Ecology was controversial in that the three firms preferred by the state backed out of the bidding because they were not willing to accept the financial and legal risks involved. The state had no choice but to accept US Ecology's proposal. The firm had been penalized for improper actions in several other states in past years, but an official in Kentucky said that the state also was to blame for leaking and contamination there in the 1970s, adding, "We didn't know back in the early days what we know now." William E. Prachar, president of US Ecology's parent firm, said, "You pay a price for being a pioneer."

US Ecology does have the greatest experience in this infant business of radioactive waste disposal, and the firm's painstaking work so far in California is impressive. The proper desert site should eliminate any risk of contamination of water resources. It will be up to the state, of course, to monitor the disposal program carefully.

This is a beginning, although a promising beginning, for just one of California's nagging disposal problems. But it is better than wandering aimlessly at sea for a solution.

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