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Ruling Clears Obstacle to Nuclear Dump : Environment: Appeals court says Wilson need not hold safety hearing, but interpretations vary. Governor orders decision in 30 days on licensing the facility.

May 08, 1993|MARIA L. La GANGA and MAURA DOLAN | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITERS

A proposed nuclear waste dump in the desolate Mojave Desert moved closer to construction Friday when the state Court of Appeal in Sacramento ruled that the Wilson Administration does not have to hold a hearing to address safety and liability issues related to the dump.

In addition, Gov. Pete Wilson on Friday ordered the Department of Health Services to decide within 30 days whether to grant a license for the dump to U.S. Ecology, the company that the state has picked to build and operate the facility.

"Whether or not the license is granted, a decision needs to be made," Wilson said in a written statement. "In order to plan their future, California's business and health care industry must know how and where they will dispose (of) their low-level radioactive waste."

But as with every other facet of the proposed dump, interpretation of the Friday court ruling varied widely. A spokeswoman for Wilson said the hearing will not be conducted and that the court would hold the Administration in contempt if a hearing was held.

But opponents of the dump insist that the 54-page decision merely says Wilson does not have to hold hearings if he does not want to--not that he is prohibited from holding them.

"The court's decision puts the ball squarely in the Wilson Adminsitration's court," state Controller Gray Davis said. "Gov. Wilson said he would hold adjudicatory hearings unless a court precluded him from doing so. Friday's ruling gives the governor an opportunity to keep his promise" to hold hearings.

The dispute over the Ward Valley hearing began when the Senate Rules Committee refused to approve two Wilson appointees unless the governor agreed to hold the adjudicatory hearing. Wilson agreed to the hearing, and U.S. Ecology filed suit, saying that the hearing was illegally coerced.

Once a licensing decision is made, only one obstacle is left for the Ward Valley low-level nuclear waste dump: The U.S. Department of the Interior must transfer the 1,000-acre site near the Colorado River to the state before construction can begin.

"If we had a license issued, and the land, and there were no legal impediments, the site could open in six months," said Steve Romano, U.S. Ecology's vice president and manager for California operations. "I don't think that's a reality. There will be legal impediments."

The Senate Rules Committee said that it will appeal the ruling. In addition, a federal lawsuit is pending in San Francisco to block the land transfer because of environmental concerns. The federal suit was filed in January by the city of Needles, Davis, and the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Los Angeles anti-nuclear activist group.

The Wilson Administration "promised the federal government, independent of any promise to the Legislature, to hold such a hearing as a condition of obtaining the land," said Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap. "Without the promised hearing to resolve outstanding safety issues, it will be exceedingly difficult for the feds to give Wilson the land when he has broken his promise."

Jay Ziegler, a spokesman for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, said Interior officials are reviewing the court ruling to determine whether it will have any impact on the land transfer.

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