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.
"We 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."
The 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 protesters packing.
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.
The 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 trenches.
"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 Waste Coalition.
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 Valley.
"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 sustenance.
"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 review.
"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."
If 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.
Meanwhile, 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 all."
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 916/657-3064.
* James Bruggers
James Bruggers writes from Oakland, California.