A federal judge in Washington has dealt an apparently lethal blow to the bitterly contested, 10-year-old plan to build a dump for radioactive waste in Ward Valley in the eastern Mojave Desert barely 20 miles from the Colorado River.
"I think [the] Ward Valley [dump] is dead," said Joe Nagel, president of U.S. Ecology, the company that was going to build and operate the dump. "This was really the basic case that was going to decide whether or not there was going to be a Ward Valley [dump]."
U.S District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled Wednesday that the Clinton administration does not have to turn over the 1,000-acre parcel of federal land near Needles where the state had hoped to bury about 10,000 cubic feet of radioactive waste a year. The waste would have come from nuclear power plants, laboratories and hospitals. U.S. Ecology and former Gov. Pete Wilson had filed the suit because of the Clinton administration's refusal to turn over the site over a six-year period.
Nagel said that U.S. Ecology would not appeal this week's ruling. "The important issue for California, along with other states, is to see to it that the waste produced is then taken care of," Nagel added.
The judge's decision would appear to bring down the curtain on one of the longest and most acrimonious environmental battles in recent state history.
The fight pitted the Wilson administration and California's utility industry against a coalition of conservationists, anti-nuclear activists and Needles-area Indian tribes. Opponents cited concerns such as the possible contamination of the Colorado River, which provides drinking water for millions of people, and the effects on Native American sacred sites in the desert and fragile creatures such as the California desert tortoise.
"Future generations will rejoice at this decision to put an end to such a misguided project," said Dan Hirsch, who heads the anti-nuclear organization Bridge the Gap and who guided the campaign against the Ward Valley dump.
But the ruling does not exempt California from its duty under federal law to find a place to dispose of its nuclear refuse. For the time being, much of California's waste is being shipped to disposal facilities in Utah and South Carolina, while some waste is being stored by the firms and institutions that produce it.
On the drawing board for a decade, the dump has been the subject of endless political and scientific debate, with environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists arguing that Ward Valley's porous, shifting sands would not be a safe place to put deadly waste, some of which would remain highly toxic for at least 25,000 years.
The ultimate nightmare--poisonous particles making their way through underground fissures to the Colorado--struck most scientists as highly unlikely but not impossible. A greater possibility was the migration of water-borne radionuclides from the dump's unlined trenches into an aquifer several hundred feet below the desert floor. That ground water is a potential source of drinking water.
Over the last few years, there was mounting evidence from the site of another desert dump in nearby Beatty, Nev., that radioactive tritium waste did not stay put.
Responsive to those concerns, the Clinton administration repeatedly called for more tests and resisted transferring the site to the state.
Exasperated by the delays, former Gov. Wilson and U.S. Ecology, a subsidiary of American Ecology, which has operated several other nuclear waste disposal facilities around the country, sued the U.S. Interior Department to compel transfer of the federal land for the facility.
The suit contended that the federal government was obligated to honor a decision to transfer the land made by Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan during the last days of the Bush administration.
But Judge Sullivan agreed with the Clinton administration that an earlier federal court ruling barred the transfer by Lujan. That ruling by U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel in San Francisco in effect blocked the transfer until the federal government determined the impact of the dump on the desert tortoise, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.
A spokesman for the Department of the Interior said Friday that Sullivan's ruling frees federal and state officials to pursue alternatives to the Ward Valley dump.
Three weeks ago, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wrote Gov. Gray Davis calling for all interested parties to "explore alternatives to the proposed [Ward Valley] land transfer."
Davis had not responded as of Friday, according to the Interior spokesman. However, Davis has long been skeptical of the Ward Valley site and, as lieutenant governor, opposed the Bush administration's efforts to transfer the land.
Through a spokesman, Davis declined to comment Friday. Deputy press secretary Hilary McLean said the case was being reviewed by the governor's legal counsel. She said the governor was vacationing Friday and could not be reached. She declined to say where he was staying.
The idea for a desert dump was an outgrowth of 1980 legislation obligating each state to take responsibility for all "low-level" commercial radioactive waste that it generates. A rather misleading term, "low-level" waste includes virtually all types and strengths of radioactive garbage except spent reactor fuel.
The states formed low-level waste compacts to deal with the issue. California is part of a four-state compact with Arizona, North Dakota and South Dakota. The Ward Valley dump would have taken waste from all four states.
Another lawsuit remains to be resolved in which the Wilson administration and U.S. Ecology are also suing the federal government for $80 million in damages, the amount they said had been invested in attempts to open the Ward Valley site. The case is pending in a federal court in Washington.