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'Mutated Love' Promotes an Anti-Nuclear Message : Art: Americans for a Safe Future commissioned painter Mark Heckman to design a billboard protesting a planned nuclear waste facility in Ward Valley near Needles.

August 19, 1993|CHUCK PHILIPS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Is there such a thing as a safe radioactive waste dump?

Painter Mark Heckman doesn't think so and neither does Americans for a Safe Future, the Hollywood environmental activist group that hired him to create "Mutated Love"--a billboard designed to protest California's first low-level nuclear waste facility.

The disposal site is to be developed in Ward Valley, a federally owned desert area 25 miles west of Needles.

Heckman's 14-by-48-foot billboard--scheduled to be unveiled at a 10 a.m. press conference today near the corner of Robertson and Cattaraugus in West Los Angeles--features two deformed lovers embracing against a psychedelic skyline littered with nuclear waste. The man has a foot growing out of his wrist. The woman has three breasts.

Printed across the image is the inscription: "A Ward Valley Production: MUTATED LOVE. 'Where Passion Meets Power.' "

"Nuclear waste dumps give me nightmares about the future, man--nightmares full of little three-headed children running around screaming everywhere," said Heckman, 29, a Grand Rapids, Mich., artist who has been making satirical billboards about political issues in the Midwest since 1984.

"This proposed dump out in Ward Valley is extremely dangerous. If it goes through, it will sit directly above a water table that feeds the Colorado River, which brings water to the citizens of Los Angeles. What could (Gov.) Pete Wilson be thinking?"

Wilson, attending the National Governors' Assn. conference in Tulsa, Okla., could not be reached for comment, but his spokeswoman disagreed with the billboard's "inflammatory" message.

"The folks who oppose the facility have been trying to make a bogyman out of Ward Valley for some time now," said Kassy Perry, associate secretary of the California Health and Welfare Agency. "From all the scientific information we've got, Ward Valley is the safest place in the state to store low-level radioactive waste."

Environmentalists fear that the waste from the dump could leach into nearby ground water and make its way to the Colorado River 19 miles away.

For years, Wilson has resisted a public hearing on the matter. But last week, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt requested that Wilson hold a hearing to review safety concerns about the depository. Babbitt also rescinded a decision by Manuel Lujan Jr., his predecessor as Interior Secretary during the Bush Administration, approving the transfer of the 1,000-acre dump site to the state.

Since the Ward Valley site was chosen in 1988, seven cities, including Los Angeles, three counties and five American Indian tribes in California, Arizona and Nevada have passed resolutions opposing the dump. American Indians argue that it's on sacred land.

Americans for a Safe America--a Hollywood coalition including such high-profile film producers as David Zucker ("Naked Gun") and Laura Ziskin ("Pretty Woman")--joined the crusade against Ward Valley in 1991.

Matt Peterson, the group's executive director, said the group installed the billboard, hoping to alert the public to the dump's dangers and also to get the word out about the track record of U.S. Ecology, the Houston-based company that won the bid to operate the disposal site. According to a California Senate Office of Research report, the company has operated two similar radioactive sites that have failed. The state Department of Health Services has also criticized U.S. Ecology's disposal techniques, design criteria, quality control and environmental monitoring as "minimal."

Reacting to the billboard, Steve Romano, vice president and manager of the California division of U.S. Ecology in Sacramento, called it a "ploy to whip up public fear."

"People don't grow third breasts or sprout feet instead of hands as a result of exposure to radioactive material," Romano said. "This kind of lurid science-fiction approach is right in line with the rest of the emotionally driven campaign by these folks who oppose the Ward Valley site. There has never been a negative health effect as a result of any low-level waste disposal site and there certainly won't ever be any from this one either."

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