Last April, Wilson, Wyo., resident Mary Mitchell called the Jackson Hole News demanding to know more about plans to burn nuclear waste at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. But Jackson papers had paid no attention to the Department of Energy's plans to build an incinerator in eastern Idaho, even though the facility would sit only 90 miles upwind of the resort town.
Persistent, well-informed and angry, Mitchell rallied Jackson Hole residents and helped launch a nationwide campaign to stop the incinerator. Her group, Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, raised almost a million dollars and also enlisted high-powered lawyer Gerry Spence (HCN, 9/27/99: Downwinders speak up and pay up).
Today, Mitchell is celebrating. On March 27, the Department of Energy agreed to scrap plans for the incinerator until it explores other options.
"We want this to be about forming a precedent about incineration," says Mitchell. "This is a victory that gives us momentum to address other issues."
In the settlement, which was crafted in about a week, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and the Energy Department agreed to put construction on hold until they convene a panel of independent experts to find alternatives to incineration. They will also pay opponents $150,000 in legal fees.
"Our agreement today reaffirms our commitment to act," says Richardson, "and allows us to continue to work with local and state officials to determine the best way to treat and dispose of this waste in an environmentally sound manner."
The Energy Department agreed to settle, in part, so that it could move forward with other projects at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, says department spokesman Brad Bugger. In the coming year, the department plans to build a compaction plant to crush and repackage 65,000 cubic meters of waste stored at the laboratory and ship it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.
"The folks who oppose the incinerator could have tied up the permit process for a very long time and prevented us from moving forward," says Bugger, adding that the Energy Department continues to stand behind incineration.