Devastated Area May Place Its Hopes in Nuclear Waste Storage

The Washington Post

The college girls who file in for night classes sport varsity jackets and wear their boyfriends' high school rings, fitted with adhesive tape, around their middle fingers.

Most of the time David Corcoran, their philosophy teacher, talks about the benefits of pursuing truth. Tonight he is talking about the benefits of pursuing a nuclear waste repository.

His passion suggests that these quests are comparable, if not synonymous.

"For 100 years, 103 years, our area has been exploited," Corcoran tells the class. "And this looks like it is going to be the first industry that we get that does not exploit because it is federal."

For the last eight months, Corcoran, publisher of the Welch Daily News, has headed the campaign to bring a high-level nuclear waste storage facility to either McDowell or adjoining Wyoming County.

Depression Feared

It is a distinction that citizens of other states have organized to avoid. But southern West Virginia is sliding down the slope of a potentially bottomless depression. After a century as the sole engine of this area's economy, the coal industry is pulling out, leaving a devastated community behind.

"I don't want us to become a ghost town if we don't have to," Corcoran says.

So, night after night, he preaches the good nukes. Rotaries. Town councils. PTAs. Corcoran has addressed them all. Tonight 35 students at Southern West Virginia Community College constitute his audience. They ask few questions and take few notes, but apparently they leave converted.

Folks who don't feel so warmly about nuclear waste are flabbergasted by the irony of Corcoran's efforts. After a century of having their land ravaged by energy companies, they ask, can their only salvation be a ravishing that, potentially, could last forever?

"Who's on the task force?" a young man asks him.

"The task force is mainly me," Corcoran says. "I'm the chairman." He looks around the room. "I wouldn't be sticking my neck out if I wasn't working for out-of-work people."

The door handle on the driver's side of his pickup is broken, so Jeff Hazzard opens the passenger's side, stretches across the seat, pops the other door open and walks back around the cab. He is an out-of-work person, has been for three years since he lost his job with the Cannelton Coal Co. His twin brother, Jerry, works for USX, digging coal at its Pineville mine.

Jeff has lived in the coal fields for 50 of his 52 years, seen boom as well as bust. He's been a welder, worked the mines, hauled coal and tried a handful of odd jobs.

Now he's learning to deal with the pervasive unemployment in McDowell County, where every third person is looking for a job. This morning he is heading for a union meeting in Welch, the county seat. The landscape he moves through seems a little less vital than he remembers it.

The brick shells of company stores stand in various stages of disintegration along Route 52. The gray stone crosses in small family cemeteries are made almost invisible by bountiful weeds. It is always worse after a rain when steam rises from the roofs of roadside cabins, and it seems as though the buildings are vaporizing. A group of old men sit in front of the union local in Maybeury. Hazzard sees them when he drives out most mornings, and he sees them when he drives back most nights.

Downshifting, he takes the curve into Welch. The city looks like the back end of a bigger town set down in the hollow. Whoever designed these five- and six-story buildings just handed the workers bricks and told them to stop now and then for windows.

In 1975, 10,000 people lived here, but today the population has fallen to 3,300. There aren't any men's stores left. J.C. Penney's has pulled out too. So have Kroger's and Pizza Inn. People were pretty embarrassed that their town couldn't support a Pizza Inn.

In front of the Super 10, Jeff spots two of his nieces and pulls over to find out what time Jerry got home from the mine. If his twin sleeps all afternoon, they won't get a chance to go squirrel hunting until after dinner. And hunting is as good an excuse as any for walking in the woods.

His love of the woods is what set Jeff against the nuclear waste facility.

"If there was anything great to it, they wouldn't offer it to none of us out here," he says. "It's like pouring sulfuric acid in your well. Sure it's jobs, but what we have here is a way of life."

The plant that David Corcoran covets and Jeff Hazzard fears is known as the Monitored Retrievable Storage facility (MRS). The decision on where and whether to build this above-ground, temporary storage site will be made by Congress.

The House is currently working on a bill that does not include an MRS, but the Senate has already passed one that does. The future of southern West Virginia may be decided in a conference committee.

The federal government is bound by law to accept spent fuel rods from the nation's 107 nuclear reactors by 1998. Those rods are currently stored at the reactor sites, which is where opponents of the MRS think they should stay.

"There's never been a high-level nuclear waste dump," says Andrew Maier, a spokesman for Save Our Mountains, an environmental group based in Hinton, a two-hour drive from McDowell County. "This is untested technology. There's just no telling what will happen."

But proponents of the plant say it would give the nation a more flexible nuclear waste disposal policy. "The MRS is about as safe and innocuous a facility as could be constructed anywhere," says Paul Childress, a nuclear engineer with Babcock and Wilcox, which would build the casks used to store the fuel rods. "If it were nothing but engineering criteria it could be operated in downtown Manhattan. I have tens of cousins working in coal mines. I'd much rather have them working in a plant like this."

Economic Boom

The plant would undoubtedly be an economic boon to McDowell County. The area's infrastructure is archaic. Most sewage is dumped, untreated, into local creeks. The new plant would mean widened roads, new sewers and improved medical emergency facilities.

It would generate about 1,500 construction jobs and take nearly a decade to complete. The plant would employ roughly 700 people, and Corcoran figures there would be at least another 1,000 jobs in support industries.

Further, the federal government would award the state a $50-million bonus for accepting the plant, $20 million each year the plant is under construction and $50 million each of the 50 years it is expected to be in use. By law, one-third of that money would be directed to the county.

The centerpiece of the plan is a 1,000-acre facility to which spent radioactive fuel rods would be shipped in steel-and-concrete casks. At the plant these casks would be opened and the rods "consolidated" into larger casks. These 22-foot-tall casks would be stored on a pad in a secured area of the plant, in the open air.

The morning after his night-school presentation, David Corcoran is hustling through the offices of The Welch Daily News.

"Welcome to my nuclear disaster area," he says. There are books and papers piled on the desk top, the couch and most of the chairs.

Corcoran is a breathing stereotype, the busy small-town editor, doing three things at once and feeling guilty that he is not doing four. His newspaper's circulation has fallen from 10,500 to 8,700 in the last year. To offset the losses he's started smaller papers in the outlying towns, but still he feels as though he is not bailing fast enough.

Embedded Unemployment

The problem, he says, is that in the last two years what used to be cyclical unemployment has become structural unemployment. "When these companies started shutting down mines they said: 'Look, we're bringing in a transition team. We're paying a lot of bucks to have these people come in to tell you how to write up your resumes. And you move to New York or you move to Washington or you move to Atlanta. Don't stay. Don't stay because we're closed.' "

McDowell County had 13,000 working residents in 1978, he says, and has fewer than 7,000 today.

"All our friends are leaving for North and South Carolina, and then like the birds of Capistrano coming back at Thanksgiving," Corcoran says. "There's so many South Carolina license plates here that on holidays when you wake up you think you're in Myrtle Beach."

The social costs of economic dislocation became evident quickly. Researchers from Harvard University found widespread malnutrition. Enrollment in free breakfast programs increased tenfold. At Welch General Hospital, 80% of the caseload is now indigent care.

That people need jobs is obvious enough, Corcoran says, but the local work force is not particularly attractive. Of 3,000 people seeking help from local job services, 700 have finished high school and 13 have finished college.

Local economic development experts would like to see the miners take matters into their own hands, but that isn't likely. McDowell is the most corporately held county in Appalachia. Three-quarters of its land belongs to energy companies. Consequently, there is little opportunity to diversify.

So Corcoran has placed his faith in the MRS. "The other side always gives the 'What ifs' arguments," he says. " 'What if there is a wreck? What if all of southern West Virginia is contaminated?' I say, 'What if we just sit here and do nothing about the 6,000 people who are out of jobs?'

"I dream about this stuff at night," he says. "And I was a person who never dreamed. I may be wrong, but I feel like I am promoting a project that is really the only attainable thing that we've got."

Along about 10 a.m., Buck Wade pulls up in front of the UMW's subdistrict office in Welch. He's driving a fat old Buick that none of the guys has ever seen before.

"Is that a new car?" Jeff Hazzard calls. He isn't serious.

"It's new to me," Wade says.

Wade is carrying the book that tells how much relief money the union has to allocate. He calls these meetings maybe four times a year, and the guys come from all over the district to decide who gets what.

Everybody settles around an oval table in a room with no windows, except for the guys who are hoping for checks. They sit against the wall.

Donald Johnson and Robert Rippeth slouch in their chairs and the shoulders of their jackets bunch up around their ears. Both men are 40. Johnson has three kids and Rippeth has one. The company just reopened their mine, but won't give them their jobs back. It says they're too old and too thick with the union leaders.

Most Money to Families

Luckily for them, Wade has decided to allocate the money based on how many mouths a man has to feed. Guys with families get top priority. Nobody gets much, and sometimes the single guys, like Jeff Hazzard, don't get anything.

The men in this room have been through hard times before. They know coal is a boom-and-bust industry. What they don't know is whether this is a stage in a cycle or the end of an era.

"When I was in school, the main thing they taught was the three Rs," says Danny Surface, a member of the union's international executive board. "And it wasn't reading, writing and arithmetic. It was Route 75 to Detroit or Route 79 to Cleveland or Route 77 to someplace else."

Most of the men who mined coal in McDowell County have hit those roads. The rest are being urged to do so.

'Why Don't You Relocate?'

"When you go to sign up for welfare, the first question they put to you is: 'Why don't you relocate?' " Johnson says. Just about everybody in this room has asked himself that question at one time or another. Some stay for lack of options; some have family ties. Others fear poverty less than they fear a world without mountains and mountain people.

"I lived near Chicago for nine years," Johnson says. "It was a bigger rat race up there. Me and my wife both worked and when we came back all we had was a handful of receipts. I moved back down here and within three years working in the mines I had a new vehicle, new trailer and bought a lot to sit it on."

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