A federal judge refused Tuesday to allow the outgoing Bush Administration to sell land to the state for a low-level nuclear dump in the Southern California desert.
U. S. District Judge Marilyn Patel, ruling in San Francisco, extended a temporary restraining order against the land sale for up to 10 days, delaying any possible federal action on the transfer until President-elect Bill Clinton's Administration takes over.
Bush's Interior secretary, Manuel Lujan Jr., announced Jan. 7 that he would sell the land for the dump at the request of Gov. Pete Wilson. Environmental groups sued the next day and obtained a temporary restraining order, which was due to expire Tuesday.
"We are disappointed," said Steven Goldstein, a spokesman for Lujan. "But it isn't uncommon when you have judges who frequently choose to act as mini-secretaries of the Interior."
Opponents of the dump charged in court that selling the 1,000-acre parcel, located 22 miles west of Needles in San Bernardino County, would violate the U. S. Endangered Species Act because it is habitat for the threatened desert tortoise.
But government attorneys argued that Patel did not have jurisdiction in the matter because environmentalists failed to give the Interior secretary 60 days' notice before filing suit, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act.
Patel could decide next week to dismiss the case or issue a preliminary injunction. In any case, the land sale will be delayed, if not stopped, while Clinton Administration officials study the merits.
"Certainly the anti-nuclear extremists will be crying foul and charging something is amiss, and (the Clinton Administration) will investigate those claims," said Ronald Gaynor, senior vice president of U. S. Ecology, the company that would run the dump. "And it will take time before they determine all was done properly."
Interior Secretary-designate Bruce Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and current president of the League of Conservation Voters, had previously declined to intervene with Lujan to stop the sale.
In an interview following Lujan's decision, Babbitt said he knew too little about the dump to comment and did not believe the Bush Administration would heed his advice in any case.
Bennett Ramberg, research director for the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a group opposed to the Ward Valley dump, expressed confidence that the Clinton "Administration will do what it ought to do, which is to examine carefully the environmental issues associated with this dump."
Environmental groups already have organized a telephone campaign directed at Babbitt and Vice President-elect Al Gore to stop the sale, said Ward Young, a director of the Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition, one of the plaintiffs in the suit.
But even with Clinton's team in office, Young said, the groups will continue to press their case in court.
Environmentalists argue that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to designate critical habitat for the desert tortoise. Once land is declared critical habitat, federal government agencies cannot disturb it without a formal consultation with wildlife officials.
If the environmentalists are successful, the wildlife agency first would have to designate the tortoise's critical habitat, which the activists believe would include the dump site. Then the U. S. Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency that owns the dump site, would have to consult formally with the wildlife service before the property could be sold to California.
If the land eventually is transferred and a state permit issued, the dump would become the repository of low-level radioactive waste ranging from contaminated test tubes to internal components of nuclear reactors.
Opponents of the Ward Valley dump say it would threaten water supplies. Supporters contend that the site is safe and warn that California companies using radioactive materials may move elsewhere unless they have a place to dispose of their wastes. California generators now have temporary access to a dump in South Carolina.
In a separate legal skirmish, Controller Gray Davis, the city of Needles and the Committee to Bridge the Gap filed another lawsuit Tuesday to stop the land transfer on different grounds. They charged that the sale would violate the National Environmental Policy Act because it received inadequate review and public comment.