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California and the West

Democrats Join Ward Valley Dump Fight

Environment: Department lacks authority to buy land, legislative leaders say.


Democratic leaders of the California Legislature have asked the White House to halt negotiations with Gov. Pete Wilson aimed at transferring the proposed Ward Valley nuclear dump site to the state.

Wilson's proposal to acquire the land is illegal because the state Department of Health Services, which has been negotiating to buy the land, lacks authority to do so, the leaders say.

A political battleground for the past decade, the 1,000-acre patch of desert close to the Arizona border has pitted the Wilson administration against environmental activists and local Indian tribes who fear that radioactive waste from the dump would contaminate the water table and eventually make its way to the Colorado River, 20 miles away.

The new letter--signed by state Sen. President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) and Speaker Pro Tem Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica)--is the strongest recent signal the Democratic leaders have sent on Ward Valley.

"It's the first time in several years the Legislature has engaged on the issue, and it creates a new political dynamic," said John Garamendi, the Clinton administration's deputy secretary of the Interior.

"The legislators have raised several critical issues regarding the legality of the state's position, and we will be taking a serious look at those issues," Garamendi said.

Citing "an internal Wilson administration memorandum," the legislative leaders say the governor's office has known since 1991 that the Department of Health Services did not have legal authority to purchase the Ward Valley property.

Moreover, the letter says that in a "flagrant effort" to avoid legislative scrutiny of the deal, the Department of Health Services further violated state law by arranging to pay for the land with a $500,000 "gift" from US Ecology, the firm hired to operate the dump.

Speaking for the Wilson administration, Elisabeth Brandt, chief administrative law judge for the Department of Health Services, said the department was authorized to acquire the land under a state government code permitting any state agency to take title of land to be used for public purposes with the permission of the state's director of finance.

"We had that [permission]," Brandt said.

She said the department was directed to seek funds from US Ecology by legislation that banned the use of tax money for the purchase of the land. That legislation, she said, also required that "the designated licensee"--US Ecology--advance money for the purchase price and recapture it from operating fees.

So far, the Interior Department has put off a decision on transferring the land pending the completion of tests to determine the safety of the site.

That testing was postponed after Native American protesters, who continue to occupy the site, said they would not allow the tests to take place. They have been joined by other activists who object to the dump because it would imperil habitat of the desert tortoise.

The state's Department of Health Services and US Ecology have sued the Department of Interior to force the land transfer, accusing Interior officials of breach of contract.

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