Partners in Survival--Tortoise, Waste Site

Times Staff Writer

Businessman Ron Gaynor would like to dig a huge hole in the Mojave Desert where he can bury low-level radioactive waste.

At the same time, biologist Alice Karl has long wanted to protect the desert tortoise from extinction.

And so the two have formed an unlikely alliance designed to bring a low-level radioactive waste dump to an isolated spot in the desert that is home to dwindling numbers of the tortoise.

Gaynor, senior vice president of US Ecology, a waste management firm, has selected a 100-acre site in the Ward Valley 22 miles west of Needles as the preferred location for California’s first low-level radioactive waste facility.


To make up for the loss of tortoise territory, the firm proposes to build a barrier two feet high across 7 1/2 miles of the valley. The unusual fence, designed to reclaim a portion of the species’ original habitat, would keep the slow-footed reptiles from wandering onto a busy stretch of Interstate 40 that runs through the middle of the valley.

Tortoises Come Out Ahead

“If we can decrease the effect of the freeway, there is going to be a net benefit for the tortoises in Ward Valley,” said Karl, who was recruited by US Ecology to study the animals.

The question of where to place the federally required dump underscores a growing conflict between two environmental concerns: preserving the habitats of rare species and finding remote locations to safely store ever-increasing amounts of hazardous waste.

Yet, surprisingly, selection of the Ward Valley site has generated few cries of outrage so far.

Many residents of Needles have overcome their initial fear of low-level radioactive waste--material contaminated by radiation, such as protective clothing, used medical supplies and power plant water filters. Needles Mayor Robert C. Prochaska said local people favor putting the dump near their town because of the two dozen permanent jobs it will offer.

The Sierra Club, which was among a number of groups consulted by the state government and US Ecology, reluctantly agrees that Ward Valley is the best place to dump the waste.

The state, which awarded US Ecology the contract to find a site and operate the dump, insisted that the firm consult local citizens and environmental organizations in an attempt to resolve their concerns, such as protecting the tortoise.


As a result, some officials say the involvement of these groups early in the planning process could provide a model for siting other difficult projects in the future.

“It’s controversial, but it may be a controversy that was resolved because it was honestly approached,” said state Health and Welfare Undersecretary Thomas E. Warriner, whose agency oversees the selection and operation of the disposal site. “I think it displayed sensitivity on the part of the government toward people who lived nearby and are affected by this.”

But for some, the siting of the low-level radioactive waste dump in Ward Valley is a sad commentary on the plight of the desert tortoise, which can live to the age of 90 and grow to a length of 14 inches.

Jim Dodson, a Sierra Club volunteer who took part in the planning sessions, said it was simple enough for US Ecology to find a way to help the tortoise with freeway fencing because so little is being done now to protect the reptile. The state should have built such barriers long ago on many stretches of the highway, he said.


“I’m one of the pessimists who believes we’re seeing the extinction of the desert tortoise,” said Dodson, a budget officer at Edwards Air Force Base. “Statistics all indicate the population is dropping below the necessary density for breeding.”

There are now about 60,000 tortoises living in the deserts of California, according to an estimate by the federal Bureau of Land Management. In some areas of the reptile’s habitat, particularly the western Mojave, the tortoise population has declined by as much as 40% in just six years, surveys by the agency show.

‘It’s in Trouble’

Encroaching suburban development, off-road vehicle traffic, desert grazing by sheep and cattle, predation by ravens and the spread of a deadly virus by pet tortoises released from captivity all have taken a toll on the animal.


“If the decline in population continues, it’s in trouble,” said Hugh Riecken, associate manager of the BLM for California. “We are doing everything we can to protect as much of the habitat as we can.”

Nevertheless, both the federal and state governments have resisted listing the tortoise as a threatened or endangered species--a move that could lead to stricter land-use controls.

The state Fish and Game Commission has delayed until June a decision on whether to identify the tortoise as threatened.

Federal officials oppose such a designation, preferring instead to adopt protective measures such as shooting ravens, fencing certain roads, educating the public and finding a cure for the tortoise virus, Riecken said.


Ward Valley is one of the prime California habitats for the desert tortoise.

Lying between the Turtle Mountains to the east and the Old Woman Mountains to the west, Ward Valley is a long strip of largely untouched desert. Among the ubiquitous creosote and burro bushes, the burrows of tortoises, kit foxes and kangaroo rats dot the desert floor. Lizards abound, and the valley also is home to yuccas, barrel cactus, coyotes, jack rabbits, rattlesnakes and ravens.

US Ecology chose Ward Valley from 18 locations it examined.

“It’s the least bad of the options that were found and looked at,” conceded Dodson, the Sierra Club representative. “These wastes are being produced. Something needs to be done with them to store them in an appropriate manner.”


State Health Services Director Kenneth W. Kizer said he expects to give formal approval to the site next year after an extensive environmental review is completed. “Based on all the information we have so far, Ward Valley is the preferred site,” Kizer said during a recent tour of the area with other state officials. “It’s the best place.”

Advocates of putting the dump in Ward Valley point out that the 100-acre tract already has been subject to considerable human disturbance.

The proposed site is about a mile south of Interstate 40. A power substation sits nearby. Giant transmission towers stand next to the property and extend off into the distance. A dirt road runs by the site and tracks left by off-road vehicles are clearly visible on the desert floor.

Ideal Conditions


US Ecology and state officials say the valley is ideally suited for storing low-level radioactive waste. The water table is unusually deep, 700 feet below the surface. Rainfall in the area is minimal and runoff causes little erosion.

In addition, Ward Valley gets high ratings for its soil conditions and seismic stability. With the interstate freeway nearby and a railroad siding five miles away, hauling waste to the dump would not be difficult.

“The site was overwhelmingly considered the superior site,” US Ecology’s Gaynor said during the tour by state officials. “Obviously, the major negative factor is the tortoise.”

In an effort to protect the tortoise, US Ecology and the state are proposing a variety of steps they say would improve the reptile’s habitat and keep fatalities to a minimum.


The largest undertaking would be the barrier designed to prevent the tortoises from being run over while crossing the freeway. Biologist Karl believes the interstate is the single biggest threat to the tortoises in the area--far greater than putting a dump there.

Vehicles speeding by at a rate of one every 11 seconds have killed more than 1,000 tortoises since 1971, she estimates. During that time, the number of tortoises living within two miles of the freeway has dropped substantially--particularly the males, which travel longer distances to mate, her research shows.

Karl, who has been studying tortoises in the area since 1978, also is concerned that the freeway, by dividing the tortoise population in half, has split the animal’s gene pool, further reducing the chance of the species’ survival.

As proposed by US Ecology, the tortoise fence would be placed on each side of the highway at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars. The twin 7 1/2-mile-long barriers would be attached to existing barbed wire fences and buried a foot underground to keep the tortoises from burrowing underneath.


Once the fence is in place, Karl and state officials hope, the tortoises would begin crossing under the freeway through a wash and four culverts, reducing the number of highway deaths and reuniting the two segments of the population.

Gaynor estimates that the fencing would reclaim more than 19,000 acres of tortoise habitat, far more than the 100 acres that would be lost to the waste dump. “We’re treating it as if it were a threatened species,” Gaynor said.

US Ecology expects to displace an estimated 25 tortoises from the dump site itself. The reptiles would be relocated nearby and equipped with transmitters so their movements could be followed as part of a continuing study.

Trucks delivering waste to the facility would be escorted along the entry road to make sure they do not run over any tortoises.


In addition, the firm would attempt to keep ravens from moving into the area and roosting on the facility’s fences and buildings, from which they could easily prey on young tortoises in the area. One idea is to place strips of tiny needle-like spikes on the tops of the fences.

“The opportunities are clearly there for the tortoise to come out better in the end,” said David C. Nunenkamp, chief of the Office of Permit Assistance. “We can’t control the tortoise, but he will certainly have a better chance than he does now.”

The search for a place to put low-level radioactive garbage in California began in 1983 after Congress passed a law requiring each state to open its own dump or make an agreement with other states for disposal of such waste.

Just Three Dumps


Only three dumps in the nation--in Nevada, Washington and South Carolina--now accept low-level radioactive waste. Under the federal law, they will not be required to accept waste from other states after Jan. 1, 1993.

Among the major producers of the waste are nuclear power plants, hospitals, universities and industry. Most of it will cease to be radioactive in less than a 100 years, but in some cases the contamination will last as long as 500 years.

Spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants, which are far more radioactive, are not considered low-level radioactive waste and must be disposed of separately.

Under California’s plan, the Ward Valley site would accept low-level radioactive waste from within the state as well as from Arizona, North Dakota and South Dakota. After 30 years, California could decide to continue operating the facility or close it down and require one of its partner states to open a new dump.


The Ward Valley facility is expected to open by the middle of 1991--making California the first state to begin operating a low-level radioactive waste site under the new federal system.

US Ecology already has spent $10 million in planning for the dump, and its costs could reach $30 million before Ward Valley accepts its first barrel of radioactive waste. The money will be recovered from fees set by the state and charged to those who dispose of waste at the site.

“This is the best location despite the tortoise,” said Health and Welfare Undersecretary Warriner after seeing the Ward Valley site for the first time. “Anyone who looks at it would be hard pressed to come up with a better answer.”