Capitol Political Bombshell Fused by Nuclear Dump

Times Staff Writer

A sleepy little bill to ratify a California-Arizona compact for disposal of low-level nuclear waste suddenly has become a political bombshell in the state Capitol.

For most legislators, the best place to put a nuclear waste dump is in someone else's district. It is known in the Capitol as the "anyone's-backyard-but-mine syndrome."

So when Assembly Democrats, led by Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco, decided on a plan to put a nuclear waste dump in a northeastern San Bernardino County area represented by Republican lawmakers, the fight started.

The vehicle for Brown's plan was a bill by Sen. Alfred E. Alquist (D-San Jose), which had passed the Senate by a 25-1 vote. The Senate-passed version merely would have ratified a California-Arizona compact governing disposal of low-level nuclear waste; it did not specify a dump site.

Site in Desert

An amendment stuffed into Alquist's bill on the Assembly side specifies that the dump would be in a desert area represented by two Republicans, Assemblyman Bill Leonard of Redlands and Sen. H. L. Richardson of Glendora.

Without the amendment, the decision about where to put the dump would be left to Republican Gov. George Deukmejian's Administration, and Democrats privately indicated that the amendment is needed to ensure that the dump will not wind up in a Democratic legislator's district.

Alquist's bill had started out as a relatively noncontroversial response to a law passed by Congress in 1980 to make states more responsible for disposing of their own low-level nuclear wastes.

(Low-level waste is radioactive material--clothing, plastic gloves, medical supplies and other items--from nuclear industries, laboratories and hospitals. The contamination can take up to 100 years to dissipate, and the material must be buried for shielding purposes. It does not include more potent forms of waste, such as spent nuclear reactor fuel rods.)

Deadline Next Jan. 1

The 1980 law invites states to enter into compacts for the disposal of low-level waste. States that do so can refuse waste from states that are not parties to the compact. The deadline for making compacts is Jan. 1.

The federal law also says the dump must be located in the compact-member state that produces the most waste, which in the case of the California-Arizona agreement is California.

California now dumps its wastes in two of the nation's three low-level nuclear dumps, one in Washington and the other in Nevada. The third dump is in South Carolina.

Alquist's bill would ratify a compact previously negotiated between Deukmejian and Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona. It must be ratified by both states and Congress to become effective.

Washington and Nevada both have entered into compacts with other states, leaving California not only in the position of being refused the right to dump low-level nuclear waste there but of having to accept such waste from other states if no compact is achieved.

Alquist's bill was designed to avoid that predicament.

"Without a compact, anybody from any other state can come in here and dump under federal law and we can't keep them from doing it," Alquist said. "With a compact, only California and Arizona can dump here."

All bets were off after the amended bill passed the Assembly on a 51-25 vote last month.

Alquist, who has temporarily shelved the legislation pending negotiations, said he believes that Brown was trying to protect Assemblyman Steve Clute (D-Riverside).

"I thought it was incredibly irresponsible of the Speaker to make that bill completely unworkable," Alquist said of the amendment. "The Speaker shows no evidence of being responsible. Until he does, I'll put the bill on the inactive file."

Tough Infighter

It was at some peril that Assembly Democrats amended the bill. Alquist, a 22-year legislative veteran and one of Sacramento's toughest political infighters, is known as the iron-fisted chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Budget committees, through which any Assembly money bills must pass.

Republicans cried politics, charging that Democrats were afraid that the dump might end up in the high desert area of a district represented by Clute, who is considered politically vulnerable. So Brown took steps to prevent this by insisting on the siting amendment, the GOP legislators said.

Leonard said Assembly Democratic whip Steve Peace of Chula Vista told him that the amendment to put the dump in Leonard's district was necessary to make sure that it did not go into another district.

"I said, 'You mean Clute's?' and he said, 'Uh-huh,' " Leonard said.

Brown denied that he was trying to protect Clute. However, Brown has pumped huge sums into Clute's two election campaigns in a sprawling conservative Democratic district where voters cannot be depended on to vote the party line.

'Not to Save Steve Clute'

"The motivation was not to save Steve Clute," Brown said of the amendment. "The motivation is to keep it out of Riverside County. Stringfellow (dump) is already there, and they do not need another one of those. It is a bill I am showing wisdom on and others do not."

Stringfellow acid pit is a toxic waste dump that became the focus of an Environmental Protection Agency scandal that led to the replacement of Anne McGill Burford as EPA administrator and the firing of Rita M. Lavelle as chief of the agency's hazardous waste cleanup program. Lavelle later was sent to prison for giving false testimony to a congressional committee.

As for Richardson, he said he is not upset about the amendment. "It doesn't bother me," he said. "I've got a ton of open space. I've got 36,000 square miles. If you've got waste, you've got to have some place to put it."

Clute denied that he asked for the amendment to shore him up politically, but he said he was glad that the low-level nuclear waste dump would not be in his district.

'Does Not Make Sense'

Peace claimed that it "does not make good sense to enter into the pact and not know where the dump site is to be located first." He insisted that the San Bernardino site meets state Department of Health Services standards.

These standards require, among other things, that the site be located away from heavily populated areas, have easy transportation access, receive low rainfall and enjoy geological stability.

Prospects for ratification of the California-Arizona compact are uncertain.

The Arizona Legislature, which also must ratify it, has adjourned for this year.

This means that Babbitt probably would have to call a special legislative session to consider the compact, even if the California conflict is resolved.

First, however, a showdown looms between Brown and Alquist, who generally are on the same side on issues.

A two-house conference committee is expected to be named later to try to work out an acceptable compromise.

The California Radioactive Materials Management Forum, a coalition of private and public groups that help produce low-level nuclear waste, supports Alquist's bill but opposes specifying the San Bernardino County dump site.

The forum is under the technical direction of Alan Pasternak, a former member of the state Energy Commission.

"We think the case for the compact is overwhelming," Pasternak said, "but we cannot support the siting amendment."

The forum believes, he said, that limiting the area in which a disposal facility can be located threatens the development of any such facility to handle the waste.

The Sierra Club, a leading environmental group, said that it now has no position on Alquist's bill.

California produced 220,000 cubic feet of low-level nuclear waste in 1984. Arizona produces 5,544 cubic feet a year.

The San Bernardino County dump site area is state-owned land bounded on the south by Interstate 15, on the west by California 127, on the north by Inyo County and the east by Nevada.

John N. Beck, a deputy director of the state Department of Health Services, said his agency is opposed to the site because it does not appear "to satisfy the siting criteria requirements for potential land burial disposal sites as stated in federal regulations."

The Legislature previously passed a law requiring the department to pick a bidder to select a site after a thorough study and to operate the low-level nuclear waste dump. Four offers were received, but the matter became the subject of a pending court suit.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World