Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, rejecting a last-minute maneuver by the Bush Administration, announced Friday that he will not transfer federal land to California for a low-level nuclear waste dump in the Mojave Desert until he is satisfied the move would be legal.
Interior officials said Babbitt will review an environmental assessment of the land transfer and seek more public comment. After the review, which would take at least 90 days, Babbitt will decide whether to sell California the 1,000 acres near Needles for the dump.
Shortly before leaving office last month, former Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. approved the land transfer at the request of Gov. Pete Wilson, waiving a requirement for public comment to speed up the process. Anti-nuclear activists quickly obtained a court order to prevent Lujan from actually transferring the land.
"There has been a serious breakdown in public confidence in the land transfer process," Babbitt said, referring to Lujan's action. "My decision reflects a commitment to follow the law."
Environmental activists praised Babbitt's decision, saying it reinstates several hurdles before the transfer can be approved. "Secretary Babbitt has undone the midnight mischief that Lujan engaged in before leaving office," said Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, an anti-nuclear group opposed to the dump. Even if Babbitt approves the transfer, Hirsch said, he could attach conditions to it.
A spokeswoman said Wilson was disappointed by the decision but remains hopeful the land will eventually be obtained for the site.
The Ward Valley disposal site, 22 miles west of Needles in San Bernardino County, would accept waste ranging from contaminated clothing to internal components of nuclear reactors.
Hospitals, power plants, universities and other generators in California send their low-level nuclear waste to a dump in South Carolina, which plans to close next July. The federal government is responsible for finding a disposal site for more dangerous, high-level radioactive materials, including spent fuel rods from power plants.
Radioactive materials must be disposed of carefully because they can contaminate water or the food chain, accumulate in the body and cause cancer.
Proponents of the Ward Valley dump say the desert site is ideal because it receives fewer than six inches of rain a year and its underground water is 650 feet or more beneath the surface.
But environmental activists contend that radioactive materials can migrate to those depths in decades. They complain that the waste also could contaminate the Colorado River, a major water supply for much of the Southwest located 22 miles from the dump site. They also cite problems with leaks at other dumps built by the same company developing the Ward Valley site.
Although Wilson's spokeswoman said Babbitt's decision will delay the opening of the dump, a representative of the company that plans to build it predicted the site will still be able to accept waste by mid- or late 1994.
Stephen Romano, a vice president of U.S. Ecology, said the dump cannot open before then anyway because of a legal fight over whether the state must hold a hearing on it before an administrative law judge. Once that issue is resolved, the California Department of Health Services is expected to grant U.S. Ecology a license.
"If a year from now Secretary Babbitt hasn't made a decision," said Romano, manager of U.S. Ecology's California operations, "then we will have a problem."
The company wants to begin construction at Ward Valley early next year. If the federal land is not transferred, another dump site would have to be found and the entire environmental review and licensing process started anew.
Romano expressed confidence that Babbitt will sell California the land.
"I think the secretary understands the need for the project to proceed on its merits," he said. "We're certainly not afraid of his taking a careful look at it."
Babbitt, as governor of Arizona, headed a governors' task force on low-level nuclear waste disposal that in 1980 recommended that "the disposition of low-level waste should be largely a state responsibility."
Romano called elation by anti-nuclear groups over Babbitt's decision wishful thinking. Babbitt, who has a bachelor's degree in geology and a master's degree in geophysics, will be able to separate the science from the propaganda, Romano said.
But activists are heartened by Babbitt's strong environmental credentials. He was president of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, and he is expected to draw from environmentalists in making some key appointments at the Interior Department.
Even if Babbitt eventually approves the sale, environmental groups hope to stop it under the Endangered Species Act. The site is a habitat for the threatened desert tortoise, and lawsuits are pending that would prevent the dump's development to protect the tortoise.