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Panel May Sue State to Get Waste Site

A commission wants California to make good on its commitment to build a low-level radioactive dump. Ward Valley is mentioned.

June 07, 2005|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — California's tortured saga over dumping its low-level radioactive waste could take a new turn under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, thanks to his own appointees and renewed pressure from industry to act quickly.

A four-state commission dominated by officials from the low-level radioactive waste business -- including two appointed by Schwarzenegger -- is considering a lawsuit against California if the governor fails to build a dump somewhere in the state.

The industry -- mostly nuclear power plants, laboratories and hospitals that use radioactive isotopes -- is again declaring a crisis because the South Carolina dump where California sends some of its waste has threatened to end services in three years. Obtaining permits and building a new site to house such waste can take years.

"We're running out of time," said Alan Pasternak, technical director of the California Radioactive Materials Management Forum, the main lobbying group for the industry. "The state of California was supposed to have a disposal facility 12 years ago, in 1993."

Environmentalists have been watching the activities closely, fearing another full-scale push to build a dump in the state. Three years ago, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation that killed the controversial Ward Valley site in San Bernardino County and set new standards for how any dump could be built.

Now, the ghosts of Ward Valley have reemerged. The Southwestern Low-Level Radioactive Waste Commission, a four-state board seeking a new dump site in California, is pressuring the Schwarzenegger administration to overturn the 2002 law.

Environmentalist are worried in part because Schwarzenegger's two appointees to the Southwestern panel come from the low-level radioactive waste industry. Donna Earley, a longtime environmental safety official at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, serves on the board of the Cal Rad lobbying group; and James Tripodes, who works for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is a former Cal Rad board member. They were appointed to the Southwestern commission last year.

"It's outrageous that appointees of Gov. Schwarzenegger could be threatening to arrange a lawsuit against California that could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars," said Daniel Hirsch, president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear industry watchdog group. "It's particularly outrageous given the board members represent the radioactive waste industry."

Hirsch said he sees no evidence that Schwarzenegger wants to build a low-level radioactive waste site in California, which Hirsch contends is not needed because the amount of such waste has decreased in recent years. Despite the governor's appointments to the board, Hirsch said, Schwarzenegger appears to have otherwise ignored it -- which may be the reason for its frustration.

The handling of low-level radioactive waste is overseen by Schwarzenegger's Health and Human Services Agency, which declined to comment in depth.

"We are aware of the commission's concerns, and we're evaluating the situation. It's all fluid right now," said Sabrina Demayo Lockhart, spokeswoman for the agency.

Pasternak, with the industry lobbying group, and some members of the Southwestern commission say they have met with the Schwarzenegger administration to discuss low-level radioactive waste but that nothing has been decided.

Bill Magavern, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club, said the Schwarzenegger administration has not asked to meet with his group over the issue, despite a request for a meeting.

"They have never solicited our opinion on these issues," Magavern said.

Under federal law, states can sign agreements with other states to build low-level radioactive sites to store medical waste, contaminated equipment or dirt from nuclear power plants or material from laboratories.

California now sends its low-level waste to two sites, the one in South Carolina and another in Utah. The sites do not accept the most highly radioactive materials, such as nuclear power plant fuel rods, which are handled by the federal government.

The Southwestern commission does not exclusively have Ward Valley in mind, but its mention raises red flags for many. California saw bitter fights in the 1990s over the site. Ward Valley is 18 miles west of Needles and the Colorado River, a key source of Southern California drinking and irrigation water. The desert valley has also long been considered a sacred site by the Ft. Mojave Indian Tribe and four other tribes that live along the Colorado in California, Arizona and Nevada.

Nora McDowell, chairwoman of the 1,100-member tribe, which has lived along the river for at least 1,000 years, said they are prepared to continue their fight if a Ward Valley dump is again proposed.

"We're together," McDowell said. "We're a lot smarter and we know what we're up against."

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