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Babbitt Votes for Prudence

Sometimes a decision not to decide is the best decision under the circumstances. On Wednesday Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt decided not to decide--for now--whether to transfer federal land in California for use as a low-level radioactive waste dump.

Babbitt had asked Gov. Pete Wilson to hold a hearing on the safety of the dump proposed for Ward Valley, near Needles. Both the rules and the presiding judge for the hearing were under discussion, if not in dispute. Meanwhile, the California Department of Health Services’ decision to license U.S. Ecology as operator of the dump had been challenged in court.

On Nov. 24 Babbitt wrote to Wilson: “The challengers maintain, among other things, that a full adjudicatory hearing is required before the licensing decision can become final.” Babbitt concluded: “Because the court is now being asked to order a hearing at least as comprehensive as the one (Babbitt had asked Wilson to hold), it seems to me the proper course is to await the outcome of the state court litigation. . . . “

Because, it seems to us, final judgment on whether the Ward Valley dump should go forward cannot be made until serious environmental issues are fully aired, this editorial page has maintained from the start that a full adjudicatory hearing is called for. Babbitt’s interim decision is thus welcome, but even more welcome is the determination expressed in his letter that, one way or another, a serious, evidentiary hearing should take place. “That commitment remains firm,” he writes; “There should be a comprehensive and fair evidentiary hearing before an impartial hearing officer before I will consider whether to transfer this land for this purpose.”

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Public safety and, in particular, the integrity of the Colorado River as a key water source for Southern California require no less than the commitment that Babbitt seems now to have made. But he had important political help in making it. Though the opening or otherwise of this dump is an event of national importance, it was not on the national political radar screen until Sen. Barbara Boxer put it there, drawing attention to neglected, disturbing studies of radioactive pollution paths produced for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Metropolitan Water District. Californians owe a debt of gratitude to her vigilance as well as to Babbitt’s.


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