Just after lunchtime Thursday, Bill Prachar opened the front door at his Agoura Hills waste-disposal company to find himself facing instant executive heartburn: two dozen angry environmental activists, gripping protest signs and spoiling for a verbal fight.
But the bespectacled, shirt-sleeved chairman of American Ecology Corp. did not jump back inside his office and lock the door. For more than an hour and a half, he argued nose-to-nose with members of Greenpeace, Earth First! and other groups that peppered him with questions about a low-level radioactive waste dump that his firm is trying to build in the Mojave Desert.
The unusual standoff in a cramped hallway ended in a rhetorical stalemate, with Prachar insisting that the facility will be environmentally safe and demonstrators charging that his firm's poor record in other states makes radioactive leaks almost inevitable.
Prachar's company is seeking state permission to build the 70-acre, $50-million dump on federally owned land about 24 miles west of the small desert town of Needles. State health officials are expected to decide soon whether to grant an operating license for the dump, which would be the first such facility to open in the United States in a generation.
Low-level radioactive waste typically includes such items as clothing, gloves and tools used in the nuclear-power industry and hospitals that employ radioactive medicines. It can take up to a century for the radiation to dissipate. The dump will not accept the more dangerous, high-level type of waste, such as spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors.
Opponents have charged that sooner or later the dump will leak, spilling radioactivity into underground water tables. They also argue that it is still not clear if the company or taxpayers will be liable for millions of dollars in cleanup costs if there is a spill or some other accident at the facility.
"Will it leak?" demanded Greenpeace member Sherry Meddick, who earlier handed Prachar a green-colored "glow shovel" intended to symbolize the dangers of burying radioactive refuse.
"I don't know how you define leak," replied Prachar. As protesters groaned and hooted, he quickly added, "The site will perform within its design standards."
Meddick repeatedly questioned Prachar about regulatory and legal problems his company has had in Nevada and Illinois, asking what assurances Californians have that the same troubles won't occur at the Needles site.
American Ecology's major subsidiary, U.S. Ecology, was designated in 1985 to build and run California's first low-level nuclear dump despite what a state review committee called "serious regulatory noncompliance" at dumps in other states.
In June, an Illinois judge dismissed a demand by state and local officials for reimbursement of the cost of cleaning up a dump operated by American Ecology in Sheffield, Ill. That facility was closed in the early 1980s after toxic chemicals and radioactive tritium seeped into nearby ground water. The Illinois state attorney general's office has appealed the judge's ruling.
In 1979, Washington Gov. Dixie Lee Ray ordered the shutdown of an American Ecology dump in Richland, Wash., because "the people who generate the waste weren't packing it properly."
"The history of your company is atrocious!" protester Chris Zandonati loudly told Prachar.
"Every company in this country that is in the waste business, in one way or another has an atrocious record, to use your term," Prachar replied. But he added that tougher regulation and better technology are improving disposal practices.
The fate of the firm's Needles proposal has been unresolved since June when the State Lands Commission delayed action on it. The commission must approve the transfer of land for the dump from the federal government to the state of California before the dump can be built.
Two Democratic members of the commission, Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy and State Controller Gray Davis, said they have major concerns about the dump's safety and the potential liability of taxpayers in the event of a spill or other environmental accident.
Both McCarthy and Davis are running for the U.S. Senate this year, and state regulators and American Ecology officials have suggested that they are delaying the dump-siting process to gain votes from environmentalists.