At an impasse in talks with the federal government over the safety of California's proposed Ward Valley nuclear waste dump, state officials are backing a move in Congress to transfer the dump site without conditions sought by the White House.
A Republican proposal in the House, scheduled for a key committee vote today, would end further wrangling over the site by ordering its transfer and arbitrarily declaring that all relevant environmental laws had been met.
By tying the land transfer--which would net about $500,000 for the U.S. Treasury--to the Republican budget reconciliation package, the House action would cut off any debate on the merits of the proposal.
Transfer of the federally owned land, 1,000 acres in Ward Valley in the eastern Mojave Desert, would represent the final step in a decade-long battle to build a repository for low-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, hospitals, laboratories and industries.
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt agreed conditionally to the transfer in June after a nine-month study by the National Academy of Sciences gave a qualified endorsement of the site. The panel said the location, about 20 miles west of the Colorado River, was safe but recommended more tests be done before any radioactive waste is deposited there.
Since that time, Babbitt has sought legally binding commitments from the state to carry out the panel's recommendations and to put a ceiling on the amount of waste that goes to the dump.
"We want to make sure that the transfer happens in a way that safeguards the public interest," said John Leshy, Interior Department solicitor. "The sticking point," said Leshy, "seems to be the state's insistence that its agreement to carry out the National Academy's recommendations not be enforceable but remain entirely within the discretion of the state. As far as we are concerned, 'trust me' just won't do it. We owe the people more than that."
State officials have said that they would be willing to consult with the federal government before exceeding limits in waste volume set forth in the Ward Valley operating license. State officials have also pledged to carry out certain tests recommended by the National Academy panel and to do so before any waste is received at the dump.
But the Wilson Administration is accusing Babbitt of trying to arrange the transfer agreement in such a way that the federal government would "maintain continued control of the site after the transfer."
In a letter to Babbitt on Monday, Sandra R. Smoley, secretary of the California Health and Welfare Agency, wrote, "You seem more interested in maintaining some political advantage, using your department's present ownership of the site as leverage than protecting health and safety."
In an interview Monday, the agency's chief counsel, Elisabeth Brandt, said that under Babbitt's terms, opponents of the dump, as well as the federal government, would continue to be able to block the construction of the dump even after the land is transferred.
Brandt said that was unacceptable, added that negotiations between her office and Babbitt had reached a dead end and said that the Wilson Administration supported the efforts of Congress to expedite the transfer.
That measure, by declaring that all environmental laws had been met, would preclude future challenges and nullify two pending lawsuits brought by environmental groups opposed to the dump.
California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, a longtime critic of the project, decried the House measure as an "outrageous backdoor attempt to circumvent health, safety and science."
The heart of the Ward Valley debate has been the question of whether radioactive waste particles could migrate from the dump to ground water 650 feet below the surface.