SACRAMENTO — A long-sought agreement between California and Arizona to dispose of low-level radioactive waste has unexpectedly become mired in each state's political turmoil and a falling out between key lawmakers in the two states.
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who interceded in the matter this week, announced Thursday that he hopes to send a negotiating team to Arizona in the next two weeks in an effort to resolve the impasse.
The proposed agreement calls for both states to dump their low-level nuclear wastes in the eastern California desert for 30 years. At that point, California would decide whether to continue taking the waste or to have Arizona provide a disposal site for it. The wastes typically include items such as clothing, gloves and tools, but would not include the far more dangerous spent fuel from nuclear reactors.
A 1980 federal law requires states to enter into such compacts with each other voluntarily or be forced to accept wastes from other states.
After four years of deliberation, the California Legislature ratified the pact and Gov. George Deukmejian signed it in June with the expectation that Arizona would soon follow suit. But the process hit a snag when Arizona legislators said last fall that embattled Gov. Evan Mecham had agreed to the measure without consulting them.
The Arizona Legislature has subsequently begun impeachment proceedings against Mecham, who has been indicted on six felony counts and faces a May 17 recall election.
In a bid to reopen negotiations, top Arizona legislative leaders flew to Sacramento in November to meet with state officials, including Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista), the architect of the proposal. But, by all accounts, the acrimonious 90-minute session produced only ill will.
"We got a terrible reception," recalled Arizona Senate Majority Leader Robert B. Usdane, who said Peace told his delegation: " 'We don't need Arizona. We don't feel you're important. We're not going to change anything.' "
Peace's chief aide, David K. Takashima, said: "We were tired of people coming in at the last minute and saying, 'We don't know what's happening.' All they did was criticize without offering any changes of substance. . . . I don't believe they really want to have any facility in Arizona."
Usdane denied that Arizona is seeking a free ride. But he said a primary concern of Arizona lawmakers is that they could end up with a disproportionate disposal burden under the pact because California produces much more radioactive waste. California generated 99,000 cubic feet of waste last year contrasted with 16,600 cubic feet for Arizona.
Another concern is that California may seek more income from disposal fees by accepting other states into the compact and that Arizona would then be required to accommodate them in the future, Usdane said. Arizona has ratified a disposal agreement with South Dakota, which produces a minimal amount of low-level nuclear waste.
The fallout from the November session led to a conference call from the Arizona lawmakers to Brown on Wednesday, during which the Speaker vowed to oversee negotiations himself, removing Peace from the process, said Brown assistant Kent Stoddard.
Brown's action was precipitated by Peace's "inability to have a statesmanlike conversation about the resolution of a difficult issue for both states," Stoddard said.
Brown may have been quick to sidestep Peace because the lawmaker is part of the dissident Democratic "Gang of Five" that has challenged Brown's Assembly leadership. Brown earlier stripped Peace of his chairmanship of the ways and means subcommittee, removed him from two powerful committees and relegated him to a smaller office with fewer staffers.
Principals from each state Thursday pledged future cooperation.
"Both California and Arizona have every desire to work out the problems," said Arizona Sen. Usdane. "We were pleased with the Speaker's feelings."
In a news release, Brown said, "I have been assured that Arizona is willing to share the responsibility for providing long-term disposal capacity, provided an equitable agreement can be reached."
Even if Arizona refuses to ratify the agreement, Stoddard and Takashima said, California should be able to find other Western states to replace it. For instance, California "has identified North Dakota as a potential party to an agreement," Stoddard said.
California plans to issue a permit for the radioactive dump next year after U.S. Ecology, a firm under contract with the state, decides among three potential sites in largely uninhabited areas in San Bernardino and Inyo counties.