WARD VALLEY, Calif. - Through the chill of winter and 120-degree heat in the summer, activists have camped for the past 16 months among the lizards, cacti and creosote of the Mojave Desert.
Their mission: To stop California from
building a low-level nuclear dump in this long, desolate valley.
At times, this protest on a patch of desert, 20
miles west of Needles, is buzzing. Hundreds of people, including
Indians from five nearby Colorado River tribes, desert residents
and urban environmentalists from groups such as Greenpeace, Earth
First! and the Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition, camp side by side.
More typically, though, the site is manned by just a few members of
the Save Ward Valley coalition, who stay in short shifts to abide
by the Bureau of Land Management's two-week camping rule. The
activists say they aren't budging. Some have even said they would
risk their lives.
At stake, some believe, is a
key segment of the state's economy, the safety of urban dwellers'
water, and the rights of American Indians.
the people were put here to take care of the Earth," says Corbin
Harney, a Western Shoshone activist and spiritual leader. "We are
all going to have to be united as one."
showdown could come soon. After 150 activists blocked a tour of
federal energy officials last month, California Gov. Pete Wilson
filed a lawsuit to force the Bureau of Land Management to transfer
its land to the state. In Washington, D.C., Republican lawmakers
are expected to propose a bill with similar aims. Wilson has also
demanded that Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt send the
If environmentalists can
finally deliver a knock-out blow - or if either attempt to speed up
the dump succeeds - one of California's longest-running
environmental battles could come to an end.
Mojave site was first chosen more than a decade ago, after Congress
ordered states in 1980 to take responsibility for low-level waste
produced within their borders. California, Arizona, South Dakota
and North Dakota signed an agreement and the state with the most
people and the largest amount of waste - California - consented to
host the dump.
Pushing for the regional dump are
industry leaders, who say their facilities have no more room to
store worn-out parts from nuclear power plants, irradiated
carcasses of research animals and contaminated laboratory clothing.
Waste is stacking up at bioscience firms,
medical research centers, nuclear power plants and universities
scattered around the four states, says Alan Pasternak, technical
director of the California Radioactive Materials Management Forum,
a consortium of big industry and big universities.
He says sending the waste to Ward Valley, a site
that has won state approval and a qualified endorsement from a
National Academy of Sciences panel, would reduce the risk of
radioactive exposure to urban dwellers. Other dump supporters say
the facility would put the responsibility of disposal where it
belongs - on California.
"California has been
generating waste since the 1950s and shipping it out of state,"
says Dave Duke, a consultant for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
"Can't California carry the burden sometime? Can't we find some
place in the desert?"
Dump supporters also say
the waste isn't as dangerous as it seems. Although the waste may
contain materials as lethal as plutonium-239, the dump would accept
only small concentrations, and most would decay to non-hazardous
levels in 100 to 500 years. Ward Valley is ideal, they say, because
of the dry climate and a water table that is 650 feet underground.
And even if contaminated water seeps into the ground, it would
travel so slowly contaminants would decay before they reach the
Colorado River, 18 miles away.
Critics say the
dump jeopardizes wildlife, including the threatened desert
tortoise, and the Colorado River, a water source for millions of
people. Furthermore, they say, most facilities can - and actually
do - store their own waste, most of which decays to safe levels
within five years. The more dangerous waste belongs above ground,
they argue, where it can be monitored, and not buried in unlined
"If you can't predict what's going to
happen to their waste for the next 24,000 years, then you don't
bury it," says Philip Klasky, co-director of the Bay Area Nuclear
Three years ago it looked like
construction of the dump might actually begin. But in 1995,
government officials acknowledged for the first time that
radioactive tritium from another low-level dump at Beatty, Nev.,
had leaked deeper and faster than anyone predicted; it had migrated
some 370 feet in less than 30 years. Ward Valley is similar to the
Nevada site and would be owned and operated by the same company,
U.S. Ecology. The Clinton administration quickly ordered a new
round of environmental studies at Ward
"The facts gathered at Beatty show our
concerns were valid," says Howard Wilshire. He and two other U.S.
Geological Survey geologists had warned in 1994 that radioactive
isotopes from Ward Valley waste could end up in the Colorado River
by migrating through five groundwater routes.
Then in December 1996, Native Americans succeeded in convincing the
Environmental Protection Agency that Ward Valley is an
environmental justice issue. This has assured that the new
environmental studies will at least address the concerns of tribes
that use Ward Valley for traditional food, medicine and spiritual
"There is a spiritual side to this
that no one else can explain or express but ourselves," says Steve
Lopez of the Fort Mojave tribe, which has roughly 900 members.
"There are tales and songs about that area and the creation
process. The turtle is part of the creation process, and Ward
Valley is where his house is."
The Bureau of
Land Management says it expects to complete its studies on the two
new issues within a year or two. Dump supporters say that isn't
fast enough, pointing out that Ward Valley has already survived
numerous environmental studies, court challenges and the NAS
"It may be low-level waste, but it's
high-level hysteria we're fighting," says John Hohstadt, a retired
Needles school principal and 35-year resident of the town. "It's
not about science now. It's about politics."
not in the courts, the next battleground will likely be Washington,
D.C. A bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, to
transfer the land to the state failed last year. He's expected to
try again soon with a new bill.
protesters hold their vigil and gear up for an Earth Day encampment
April 25-27. Klasky of the Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition says
more than a thousand people are expected to participate. "We truly
believe this is the year we are going to stop Ward Valley," he
said. "This is the push. We're going to stop this once and for
For more information, contact Save Ward
Valley at 619/326-6267, the Bay Area Nuclear (BAN) Waste Coalition
at 415/752-8678, or California Department of Health Services at
James Bruggers writes
from Oakland, California.