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Babbitt OKs Toxic Waste Site Report : Dump: The interior secretary's decision before a hearing upsets some environmentalists and politicians. But aides say he has not given the final go-ahead for the Ward Valley location.


Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has triggered the anger of environmentalists and some of California's Democratic leaders by approving a key environmental report for the state's proposed radioactive waste dump without awaiting the results of a hearing to examine safety concerns.

Opponents of California's proposed disposal site in the Mojave Desert's Ward Valley near Needles accuse Babbitt and Gov. Pete Wilson of making the hearing a sham and acting as though the dump is preordained.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) this week complained to Wilson and Babbitt; in her letter to Wilson, she compared the process to "hanging the suspect and holding the trial later--it's a done deal no matter what the outcome of the process."

Babbitt has stressed that he has not made up his mind, and his aides said Thursday that he takes the upcoming hearing "very seriously," especially because he requested it.

The proposed low-level radioactive waste dump has been studied and debated for nearly a decade, with environmentalists and other opponents fearing that waste could contaminate ground water and the Colorado River, while state officials contend that the site is safe. The largest volumes of waste come from nuclear power plants, although some is generated by biomedical businesses and universities.

The proposed dump would not contain spent fuel or rods from power plants and defense weaponry, but it would accept other waste, such as contaminated equipment and clothing.

Last month, at the request of environmentalists, Babbitt asked Wilson to hold a hearing to explore safety issues before Babbitt would decide whether to turn over about 1,000 acres of federal land to the state to build the disposal.

Wilson agreed to the hearing last week but simultaneously decided to license the dump.

On Thursday, criticism from dump opponents spread to Babbitt because his agency has completed and approved a supplemental environmental report for the dump, which will be published in the Federal Register today. The critics said they feel betrayed because the hearing is intended to examine many issues addressed by the report.

"This creates the appearance, I hope unwarranted, of collusion between the state and the Interior Department to assure the completion of the land transfer, without regard to the outcome of the hearings," Boxer wrote to Babbitt.

Criticism of Babbitt and Wilson also came from 14 national environmental groups and state Democratic Party Chairman Bill Press.

"The reason this is important is if there is a fair hearing and this is an unsafe site, then those lives can be saved. If this is a rigged hearing . . . environmental damage extending through generations can result," said Daniel Hirsch, president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, an environmental group against the dump.

Interior Department spokeswoman Stephanie Hanna said approval of the report does not mean that Babbitt has made a decision on the dump.

She said the report addresses environmental concerns that surfaced in the past, and if "new credible facts" are raised at the hearing, the Interior Department would analyze them and publish new findings. She added that Babbitt wants to guard against "stonewalling" by opponents.

"The purpose of the hearing is to identify new site-suitability issues. The secretary will not make any record of decision until after the hearing is finished," she said. "The record is still open. If someone can come up with new facts, those facts would be taken seriously."

Boxer and many environmentalists also lambasted Babbitt for saying on a Los Angeles radio show last week that "we've got to have a little hearing and let everybody have their say."

Babbitt spokesman Jay Ziegler said the "little hearing" comment was taken out of context.

"This is a hearing that never would have happened except for this secretary's extraordinary concern in making sure there was public confidence in the siting process. This goes far beyond the legal requirements. He wants to provide a forum for all sides to be heard," Ziegler said. "It won't be just a quick hearing, it will probably be a process that takes several months, with a dialogue with opponents, and then gaining information . . . before a decision by the secretary."

In January, the George Bush Administration agreed to transfer Ward Valley to California ownership so the dump could be built. But Babbitt rescinded that order almost immediately upon taking office because he wanted a hearing to air unresolved safety concerns.

Although agreeing to hold the hearing, Wilson has suggested that strict limits be put on the content of testimony allowed from the public. He recommends that there be no discussion about other sites or the record of US Ecology, the operators.

No date has been set for the hearing, and Babbitt has not responded to the format Wilson requested.

Wilson has stressed that the safety review of the Ward Valley site has been going on for years, and that there is an "urgent need" for the dump because there is no place to take radioactive waste and it is being stockpiled at hundreds of businesses around the state.

Environmentalists complained that the Interior Department took the word of Wilson Administration officials in the environmental report without conducting an independent probe.

Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote to Babbitt that "blind reliance" on data from Wilson and US Ecology "is a prescription for certain failure, and we believe, will ultimately prove to be a major embarrassment to your Administration."

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