American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Update and Hearing Summary on Low-Level Nuclear Waste Disposal (10-23-98)

Most Recent Action:

State Compacts: The Senate passed a conferenced version of H.R. 629, the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Consent Act, on September 2, 1998 by a 78-15 margin, almost a year after the House passed the bill by a 309-107 vote. President Clinton signed the bill into law (PL 105-236) on September 23. The law allows a compact between Texas, Maine, and Vermont to go forward. It passed over objections from some of the Texas delegation who raised environmental justice concerns. On October 22, however, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission denied a permit for the facility, stalling or possibily perventing the site from opening. Additional information on this issue is available in this update.

Ward Valley: On July 22, 1997, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on S. 964, a bill introduced by committee chairman Frank Murkowski (R-AK) in order to transfer federal land in Ward Valley, California to the state for development of a low-level nuclear waste storage facility. The Department of the Interior (DOI) has held up the transfer pending further testing of the site's suitability. The State of California objects to DOI's decision to undertake a both a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to address environmental concerns and a separate tritium testing following evidence of lateral migration of tritium at the Beatty, Nevada low-level waste disposal site 200 miles from Ward Valley. The Ward Valley location also raises questions of environmental justice, as area Indian tribes have staged considerable protest. Background information and a hearing summary on Ward Valley follow.

Texas Compact Legislative Background

The Texas-Maine-Vermont compact has faced controversy in Congressional consideration. The choice of Sierra Blanca in Hudspeth County, Texas, to build a site for disposal of low-level nuclear wastes from Texas, Maine, and Vermont has West Texas up in arms. Congressional members hailing from West Texas have launched an offensive against the move, and they have been successful twice before. As in California, the choice to site the waste disposal in West Texas has split the Texas congressional delegation. H.R. 629 was introduced by Representatives Joe Barton (R-6th) and Ralph Hall (R-4th). However, Representatives hailing from Western districts, Silvestre Reyes (D-16th) and Henry Bonilla (R-23rd), do not support the legislation. Bonilla has raised issues of environmental justice. Public interest groups have echoed the allegations, claiming that leaders took the "political path of least resistance" as seventy percent of the population in Sierra Blanca is Hispanic and poor. Opponents also claim that the waste site could pollute the Rio Grande River and negatively affect international relations with Mexico. Two Mexican states that border the Rio Grande have stated their opposition. Proponents of the bill claim that it is not site specific; Congress ratifies the compact and the state selects the location. Similar legislation, H.R. 558 , failed in the 104th Congress, yet Congressional sources are optimistic about the fate of H.R. 629. The bill's companion measure, S. 270 , has already been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In June 1993, the Governor of Texas signed legislation establishing a low-level nuclear waste compact with Maine and Vermont. The compact was formally adopted by Maine and Vermont in November of 1993 and April of 1994 respectively. The Texas compact was then submitted to the US Congress for consent in the summer of 1994, during the 103rd Congress. Representative Olympia Snowe (R-ME) introduced H.R. 4800 , legislation granting congressional consent to the compact; however, the bill did not make it past committee consideration. The legislation's companion measure, S. 2222 , was introduced by Senator George Mitchell (D-ME) and reported out of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on August 11, 1994. No further action was taken in the 103rd Congress.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, the State Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority had begun statewide screening activities under a 1983 state law. Initial efforts identified several potential sites in South Texas. In 1985, the Texas Legislature instructed the Authority to give preference in its site search to state-owned land. In 1987, the Authority identified several possible sites in Hudspeth County, Texas, including a site at Fort Hancock. However, El Paso County and others filed a lawsuit to enjoin the Authority from selecting the Fort Hancock site, and the site was abandoned in early 1991. In May of 1991, the Texas Legislature amended the Authority's statute to require the selection of a site in a 400-square mile area near Sierra Blanca in Hudspeth County. In February of 1992, the Authority selected a site on the Faskin Ranch for the state's proposed low-level waste disposal facility. Texas purchased the ranch and began a site characterization that was completed in November of 1993.

Back on Congressional turf, the 104th Congress continued consideration of the Texas Compact. On January 18, 1985, Rep. Jack Fields (R-TX) introduced H.R. 558 , the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Consent Act. The bill listed ten cosponsors and was reported out of the House Commerce Committee in June of 1995 but faced staunch opposition from the West Texas representatives. H.R. 558 was defeated in the House under suspension of the rules in September of 1995, by a vote of 176 - 243. The bill's Senate companion measure, S. 419 , was introduced by now-Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and reported out of the Judiciary Committee on May 18, 1995. No further action occurred during the 104th Congress.

Forward progress in the 105th Congress promises to be equally as difficult. Representatives from West Texas, Henry Bonilla (R-23rd) and Silvestre Reyes (D-16th), have promised a fight to the finish. In addition to environmental justice concerns, opponents of consent legislation allege that the Sierra Blanca site location imposes on an area already stressed by an extensive sewage sludge project and violates the 1983 La Paz Agreement with Mexico in which both countries agreed to "prevent, reduce, and eliminate sources of pollution" in the border area. Texas Compact consent legislation pending in the 105th Congress includes H.R. 629 , introduced by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), and S. 270 , introduced by Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME). The bills have been reported out of the House Committee on Commerce and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary respectively and await further action following the August recess.

Ward Valley Site Background

In 1979, after three of the six low-level nuclear waste disposal facilities in the United States closed due to environmental problems, Congress considered making the federal government responsible for developing disposal facilities. The three states with facilities still open (in Beatty,Nevada; Hanford, Washington; and Barnwell, South Carolina), however, were in support of the states having responsibility because the siting of disposal facilities involves mostly state and local issues and the states wanted the chance to develop alternatives to federal disposal. In 1980, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act (PL 96-573) gave responsibility for disposal to the states.

During the early 1980s most states continued to depend on the three disposal sites in Nevada, Washington and South Carolina. In response to threats by the three states to close their facilities, Congress passed what became Public Law 99-240, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985. The act was developed as a means to force states to develop disposal facilities on their own or to form "compacts" with other states to share the responsibility of developing and operating disposal facilities. Compacts are mandated by Congress in order to restrict the number of low-level radioactive disposal sites across the nation. Under the compact arrangements, Congress' role is minimal, merely granting legislative consent to state-devised compacts. Under the Amendments Act, the states and compacts were given a deadline of December 31, 1992 to open their own disposal facilities before access to the existing facilities was stopped.

California is the host state for the Southwestern low-level radioactive waste compact, which also includes Arizona, North Dakota and South Dakota. In 1982, California set in motion the process of developing a disposal facility. The California Department of Health Services (DHS) chose US Ecology as the commercial site developer and operator and after the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) examining potential sites and impacts in April 1991, the Ward Valley site in the Mojave Desert of California was chosen and DHS granted US Ecology a license to proceed with site development.

The Ward Valley site is federally owned land located in the eastern Mojave Desert, 22 miles west of Needles, California between the Old Woman Mountains Wilderness to the west and the Stepladder and Turtle Mountains Wilderness to the east. Because Ward Valley is federally owned, the Bureau of Land Management under the Department of the Interior (DOI) must transfer the land to California. A Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) was completed in 1993 that detailed the impacts of the land transfer. In January 1993, outgoing Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan decided to sell the land to California. The land transfer was stopped and challenged in court on the basis that the decision was not in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and failed to protect desert tortoises under the Endangered Species Act. Incoming Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt rescinded the earlier land transfer in order to further study the site.

In December 1993, three U.S. Geological Survey geologists (who came to be known as the Wilshire group after their leader Dr. Howard Wilshire) expressed several concerns regarding the suitability of the Ward Valley site to Babbitt. In response to those concerns, Babbitt asked the National Academy of Sciences to address the seven concerns raised by the Wilshire group. A 17-member panel, chaired by Stanford geology professor Dr. George Thompson, addressed the concerns raised by the Wilshire group and released its report in May 1995. The report was not intended to address the overall suitability of the site but merely to examine the seven issues. In the meantime, Congress began to take action to help draw the process to a close. In May 1994, Senator J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA) introduced S. 2151, directing the Secretary of the Interior to transfer the lands to California.

After the NAS report was released, Babbitt announced his intention to transfer the land if California would agree to accept the DOI's authority to enforce the state's compliance with all NAS recommendations. The state did not agree to this stipulation, and DHS has since filed suit against DOI as a means to compel transfer of the Ward Valley land. DHS charges that DOI has over-stepped its authority and that all NAS recommendations fall under radiological safety, which is the responsibility of the states.

Then tests conducted by the USGS in September, 1995 at the now closed Beatty, Nevada low-level disposal site found tritium and carbon-14 in the buffer zone beneath and around the site, indicating leakage. Because the Beatty site had been thought of as an analog for the Ward Valley site, Deputy Interior Secretary John Garamendi, in February 1996, ordered additional studies at Ward Valley and the development of a second SEIS that would update the 1991 EIS, addressing the tritium issue and other issues not considered by the previous EIS's. In response to this action, Senator Frank H. Murkowski (R-AK) introduced S. 1596 in March 1996, which would transfer the Ward Valley land to California. A related bill, H.R. 3083 was introduced in the House by Representative Brain Bilbray (R-CA). S. 1596 failed to make it to the Senate floor before the end of the 104th Congress due to stiff opposition from California senators.

Currently, further testing at the Ward Valley site has been put on hold again. DOI wants to conduct joint-testing with DHS through the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory but DHS has not agreed and has not received a permit from the Bureau of Land Management to conduct its own tests. Senator Murkowski introduced S. 964 on June 26, 1997 which offers the land to California if the state pays fair market value for it and conducts additional tests to ensure the suitability of the Ward Valley site to locate a-low level radioactive waste facility.

Hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

July 22, 1997

Senators Present
Chairman Frank H. Murkowski (R-AK)
Ranking Member Dale Bumpers (D-AR)
Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-ID)
Sen. Jon L. Kyl (R-AZ)

Opening Remarks
Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-AK) opened the hearing by calling it a continuing review of California's low-level radioactive waste site. Murkowski admonished both the State of California and DOI for allowing this process to drag on and for allowing low-level radioactive waste to pile up in the neighborhoods of California. Murkowski called the current waste storage sites a threat to public health. He pointed out several examples of "near misses" including a storage site that caught fire during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The earthquake also damaged Cedars Sinai Hospital's waste facility and in February 1996 there was an attempted burglary at a UCLA waste facility. Murkowski went on to say that the government is obligated to protect citizens and the best suggestion so far as how to do this is to locate radioactive waste facilities away from people. In 1993, California gave a license to US Ecology to develop the site but DOI continues to delay. Other unacceptable results of a delay in developing Ward Valley include a slowing down of research done at area universities as a result of having to pay for storage costs on site and a decline in the biotechnology industry. According to Murkowski, 149 biotech companies have left California since 1993. It is "simply useless to have so many different storage areas." Murkowski pointed to a Government Accounting Office report that states that additional delays in siting Ward Valley are not needed and the issues DOI will cover in a second SEIS have already been covered. He went on to say that DOI has the power to resolve this conflict "this afternoon by accepting California's check" for the land. By accepting the NAS report and allowing the project to proceed, DOI would help create jobs and assure the viability of the entire low-level radioactive waste program. "Continued delays are wrong, unnecessary and irresponsible."

Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) reiterated Murkowski's ideas. He wants the process to move along because the "viability of the [LLRWA] law is at stake here."

Panel I participants:
The Honorable Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
The Honorable Bob Filner (D-CA)
The Honorable Brian Bilbray (R-CA)

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) praised the Administration for taking a conservative approach to the Ward Valley issue and criticized the GAO report, saying that it "doesn't take into account critical information. "Our most important responsibility is to protect the health and safety of our citizens." Boxer expressed her concern about potential threats the site may pose to the Colorado River, which serves 12 million Californians. She asked consent to submit for the record a copy of a resolution just passed by the California Association of Governments opposing Ward Valley. Boxer went on to say that despite this recent resolution, the Wilson Administration supports the site. She next addressed the construction of the disposal facility. The plans approved by the State allow waste to be buried in unlined shallow land burial trenches. Boxer stressed that this technique barely meets the minimal federal standards, and most states prohibit the use of shallow land burial, a practice that is not used or is prohibited in most foreign countries. Another concern Boxer raised was with respect to the company licensed to develop the site, US Ecology. She reported that US Ecology has had leakage problems at all four of its low-level waste sites, one of which is now a Superfund site, and US Ecology received the first criminal fine ever levied by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Boxer challenged figures presented by proponents of the site that claimed that 80 percent of the waste would come from the medical and biotechnology community. She cited new projections from a July 1997 Congressional Research Report indicating that 60 to 90 percent of the radioactivity would come from nuclear waste and less than one percent from medical waste. Boxer continued to stress caution and used US Ecology's Beatty, Nevada site as a reason. This site, which has been called an analog to the Ward Valley site, has failed and scientists do not know why it is leaking. Boxer concluded by expressing her disappointment that testimony by House Resources Committee Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA) could not be "fit into the schedule."

Representative Bob Filner (D-CA) shared Senator Boxer's disappointment that Congressman Miller was unable to testify. Filner pointed out that not one Californian serves on the Senate Energy Committee and that while the prime proponent of the project, DHS, was allowed to testify, no governmental entity, Indian tribe, environmental or scientific group opposed to the project was permitted to testify. He criticized the use of unlined trenches saying that in California "you can't even dispose of municipal trash in unlined trenches." Filner's constituents rely heavily on water that travels uncovered through the southern part of Ward Valley to the Colorado River. He stressed that the long-term possibility of leaking was of great concern and said, "We cannot take chances of this sort. I oppose this; it is wrong and dangerous; and future generations will curse our name if we let this go forward."

Representative Brian P. Bilbray (R-CA) stated that he was there to represent the people whose lives are affected positively by research that produces low-level radioactive waste. Bilbray said that the evidence shows the safety of the site and indicates that all questions regarding the suitability of the site have already by adequately addressed. He went on to say that the NAS report found that the transfer of contaminants through the unsaturated zone to the water table and to the Colorado River is highly unlikely and argued that such a concern is merely a "scare tactic" being used to stall development. Bilbray stressed that the NAS report showed that even under the worst case scenario, there is no effect to human health. He explained that after spending 20 years siting waste facilities he has never seen a report that has "so clearly shown the safety of a site", no has he seen "so much good science and so much bad politics." Bilbray went on to address the second SEIS. He accused DOI of "grasping at straws" and said that consultation with Native American tribes did occur during the first EIS process and it was determined that the Ward Valley facility would not adversely affect any "culturally significant" sites or resources. Bilbray then asked where was the outrage for communities that have low-level radioactive waste in their neighborhoods. He told the Committee that Cedars Sinai Hospital has had to turn down National Institutes of Health research because it doesn't have the storage for the radioactive waste that would result. Bilbray called it a "tragedy to medicine and patients" and was concerned that the Administration was trying to veto a law passed years ago. He concluded by stating that the Administration was violating the balance of power.

Questions and Answers
Chairman Murkowski asked Rep. Filner what he suggested they do with all the radioactive waste? Filner did not directly answer Murkowski's question but he did suggest working with the research hospitals and universities to deal with their storage problems. Murkowski was not pleased with this answer and proceeded to criticize opponents of the site. He mentioned all the problems with high-level nuclear waste and the proposed Yucca Mountain facility. Murkowski went on to say that nuclear power plants are shutting down because they have exceeded their storage capacity and by 2010, the 23% of the United States' electricity generated by nuclear power plants will be unavailable because the waste storage issue has not been solved. Murkowski further expressed his displeasure by saying that a report issued by the NAS, "the highest scientific authority our government has to rely on," that should have put to rest concerns raised has not done so and opponents of the site persist. Murkowski questioned Rep. Bilbray on the number of storage sites that are threats to public health. According to Bilbray, there are 2000 licensed sites around southern California and they are a "constant threat." Murkowski wanted an explanation as to why universities and hospitals were not sending waste to the country's remaining storage facility at Barnwell, South Carolina. Bilbray replied that the water table is 10 feet below the Barnwell facility and the University of California did not want to send its waste to South Carolina because it is not safe. Murkowski expressed concerns that the biotech industry in California is being threatened. Bilbray stated that the private sector is reducing research facilities at a time when there needs to be more research.

Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) addressed the Administration's role. He quoted a comment President Clinton made in his February 4, 1997 State of the Union Address saying that our [United States] enemy is inaction. Kyl hoped that the Administration would consider this when dealing with future actions. He went on to say that the opponents offer no recommendations; they are "only good at opposing and they [opponents] need to get over NIMBY [not-in-my-back-yard] syndrome." In Kyl's view, much of the opposition was to nuclear energy in general; objection to the LLRW Act and not the actual site. "It is not a question of safety but an elimination of an industry."

Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) continued the discussion by expressing his own disappointment with the Administration. He said the Administration has gone beyond the intent of the law and the stalling tactics are a clear misuse of procedure. Craig went on to say that there is a great deal at stake and the Administration is acting irresponsibly with the health of the public, and he hoped that decisions would be "made with sound science and not emotions."

Panel II participants:
Ms. Gary L. Jones, Acting Associate Director, Energy Resources and Science Issues, U.S. General Accounting Office
The Honorable John Garamendi, Deputy Secretary, Department of the Interior
Mr. Michael A. Kahoe, Deputy Cabinet Secretary, State of California

Ms. Gary Jones testified that it has been 17 years since Congress directed the states to be in charge of low-level radioactive waste and only one state, California, has thus far authorized the building of a disposal site. In compiling the GAO report addressing DOI's continuing review of the Ward Valley site, the GAO found that DOI decided to prepare a second SEIS for several reasons, including: NAS's recommendation to conduct further tests to enhance site monitoring; new information presented by the USGS regarding the Beatty, Nevada site; and finally, public comments. Jones concluded that DOI wanted to prepare a second SEIS when "they [DOI] didn't have the technical expertise to do so and didn't consult knowledgeable agencies."

John Garamendi spent much of his testimony defending the actions taken by DOI, including authorizing a second SEIS. Garamendi said that in May of 1995, Secretary Babbitt was to move forward with the land transfer, but new findings at the Beatty site and other concerns raised resulted in DOI deciding to complete a supplemental EIS in order to do additional tritium tests. At this point US Ecology threatened to sue and the testing was delayed and has still not been done. Garamendi said he was committed to bring this process to a close but that the public is entitled to have remaining questions regarding the health and safety impacts of the transfer addressed in "an objective and credible way before the decision to transfer is made." He stated that the GAO report did not address whether new information was significant enough to do an SEIS. Garamendi went on to say that the SEIS would be prepared by a consultant as was done in the previous SEIS despite the GAO's characterization that DOI is seeking itself to determine the site's suitability. He concluded by explaining that the appropriate course to take is to allow DOI to bring the process to a conclusion and for all effects to be shown in the SEIS. "Hasty action would be ill-advised. The public interest will clearly be best served if a transfer decision is made only after the impacts of the transfer are fully analyzed and considered." Chairman Murkowski took exception to this remark saying that he did not agree with this generalization and emphasized that it has been four years since the transfer of land was first stopped and it has been 15 years since California began the process of meeting the mandates of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act.

Mr. Michael Kahoe represented California Governor Pete Wilson and the California Department of Health Services. Kahoe said that it has been 10 years since the process of site development began. Ward Valley is a dry basin, it is seismically stable, the water table is well below the surface and any water that does fall in the area is quickly evaporated. Kahoe explained that the site was licensed in 1993, a license that was upheld in the courts and confirmed by NAS. He agreed with the GAO report's characterization of DOI's behavior and the conclusion that there was no need for another SEIS. Kahoe is opposed to a new SEIS stating that there are no new issues. He went on to say that California is mandated under federal law to develop a site and efforts to meet this mandate have been delayed by DOI for five years. Without the facility, research of critical issues is being delayed and the biotech industry is suffering. Kahoe concluded by stating that California needs to see an end to this process and is ready to work on any solution so long as it is a "quick and final solution to disposal needs."

Questions and Answers
Chairman Murkowski said that it was unfortunate that there has been no successful effort to reach an accord. We created the waste and now we must do something with it and yet a "stalemate prevails." He went on to say that Beatty, Nevada has been brought up at the hearing as relevant when a report by USGS said it is not relevant. The Committee depends on the scientific experts to help draw conclusions.

The first round of questions focused on further tritium testing. Murkowski wanted Mr. Kahoe to explain why the State has not done the tritium testing. Kahoe responded that the State is ready to begin testing but DOI will not allow the testing to begin. According to Garamendi, the State has not applied yet to do testing and it is "foolish" of the State to attempt testing without assistance from DOI. DOI wants to do joint testing with the State but if the State does not agree, DOI will do testing jointly with the Department of Energy. Murkowski asked Mr. Garamendi about a memo he wrote to the State Director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that ask the Director to prevent the State testing on its own. Garamendi acknowledge that he had sent a memo stating that it was "critical to pursue joint testing." Murkowski responded by asking Mr. Garamendi if he intended BLM not to issue a permit to the State. Garamendi stated again that the State has not applied for a permit. Murkowski replied that it was "either DOI's way or no way at all because you [BLM & DOI] refuse to issue a permit." According to Mr. Kahoe, the only thing preventing the State from doing testing at this point is that it does not have access and the only way to get access is through BLM. Murkowski continued his tirade by stating that the bottom line is "what are we going to do with low-level waste because federally by law it is the issue of the State. The two agencies involved can't seem to settle this." Murkowski called it a "catch-22". DOI is insisting the State conduct further tests and in order to do so, the State must be issued a permit by BLM which has said it will not do unless the State agrees to conduct joint testing with DOI. Garamendi disagreed with this assessment of the situation stating that he does not understand why California will not cooperate and do a joint-study. According to Garamendi, DOI is prepared today to move forward with the tritium tests and the SEIS because circumstance dictate that an SEIS be done. In January, 1997, DHS filed suit against DOI charging that DOI has over-stepped its authority and has no intention of issuing a patent to transfer the land to California.

Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) expressed concern regarding the outside consultants who were hired by DOI to complete the SEIS. According to Craig, these consultants, at an earlier date, had expressed bias against the NAS report and so it appears that "DOI has employed bias." Craig wanted an explanation. Garamendi explained that these consultants were not in fact hired to do the SEIS but to do the tritium testing and that Senator Craig's supposition that the two scientists were biased was wrong. Garamendi went on to say that DOI was not capable of doing the testing and so as is normal procedure went to an external group, that being DOE. Ms. Jones said that GAO had no argument with DOI for going to outside consultants but that DOI should not be involved in radiological studies at all.

Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) asked Ms. Jones to address the SEIS issue. He understands that NEPA requires an Environmental Impact Statement but he was not clear on why DOI decided there was a need for an additional SEIS. Jones replied that DOI relied on its "discretionary authority to prepare an SEIS" by reason that the original EIS was five years old and because of the ongoing conflict with California. Kyl asked Garamendi to provide some reasoning as to why DOI felt that testing by California alone would not be credible. Garamendi responded that California or DOI operating alone would "draw continued controversy because of the current problems surrounding California and DOI." He believed that joint testing would be the quickest and most appropriate way to draw matters to a close. To this statement, Ms. Jones replied that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had concluded that California was capable of conducting the tests. Kyl went on to question Garamendi regarding the decision to prepare a second SEIS and whether there were any other serious questions other than the tritium concerns. Garamendi replied that the tritium issue was the reason that DOI decided to prepare an additional SEIS.

Chairman Murkowski continued the questioning by asking Mr. Garamendi why the information was ignored from the USGS, --DOI's own agency and only expertise,-- that ties between Ward Valley and Beatty were tenuous. Garamendi pointed out that Murkowski was picking one sentence from a report that concluded that the findings at Beatty should lead to an SEIS and that a subsequent report by the USGS stated that Beatty is getting worse and thus serious questions were raised which needed studying. Murkowski responded that the studying has been going on for four years and that the leakage at Beatty was due to burial of liquid waste, a practice that would not occur at Ward Valley. Murkowski wanted Ms. Jones to comment on what role NRC had played in the process. Besides citing California as capable of conducting the tritium tests and calling the States' nuclear waste program "highly effective," NRC has not been contacted by DOI. DOI relied entirely on the NAS report, the USGS report on Beatty and public comment to make the decision to prepare an additional SEIS. To her knowledge, DOI has not worked with NRC and did not start working with DOE until the tritium testing. Jones went on to say that DOI has no expertise in radiological safety determinations and that DOE and NRC should be involved. Garamendi responded to this by saying that DOI has been working with DOE and he expects that NRC will be involved.

Murkowski turned to Native American issues asking Ms. Jones if the concerns of Native Americans had been addressed. Jones said that in the licensing process and in the 1991 EIS, these issues were addressed and BLM concluded that there were no significant cultural resources at the site. Garamendi stressed that Indian issues were not the reason for the SEIS but as the process continues DOI is finding more concerns about the site's importance to Native Americans. According to Garamendi, the SEIS process should last a little less than a year but everything depends on the next step California and US Ecology take and whether they continue to delay the project. Mr. Kahoe replied that the testing the NAS report proposed was a monitoring question not a site suitability question as DOI has made it. Kahoe went on to say that the "form of working relationship [between DOI, DOE and California] is the problem." DOI wants to maintain independent authority to decide on the appropriateness of the site, and the State is unwilling to concede to DOI because it goes against the LLRW Act. Otherwise the State has no objections to cooperatively working with DOI.

Chairman Murkowski called the problems between California and DOI unconscionable. He continued by saying that the waste is now in areas that are not appropriate for storage, especially in the long-term. Murkowski stated that California recognizes its obligation, "but it is unfortunate that the real stakeholders are left with this continuing dilemma; the inability to resolve this." Nobody wants high-level or low-level waste but we created it so we must do something with it. Murkowski concluded by saying that he should not have to lock the two parties in a room until this is solved. He asked that both parties have one more meeting and try to resolve this so that the Committee does not have to take action and dictate the terms and conditions for the transfer of the land.

Sources: Environment & Energy Weekly; Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; 1997 Environment and Energy Briefing Book; Environment and Energy Study Conference Briefing Book; National Academy of Science Ward Valley Report; Government Accounting Office May 1995 Report: Status of Commercial Low-Level Waste Facilities Report; The Energy Daily; July 1997 Congressional Research Report

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Catherine Runden, AGI Government Affairs Intern and Jenna Minicucci, AGI Government Affairs Intern
Last updated October 23, 1998

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