Writer Chip Ward has called his home turf of Tooele County, Utah, the "most extensive environmental sacrifice zone in the nation" (HCN, 2/14/00: Canaries in the Utah desert). The 7,600-square-mile county on the western edge of the state is home to a chemical-weapons burner, a biological warfare proving ground, a bombing range, a hazardous-waste incinerator and landfill, a radioactive waste landfill, and a company consistently rated as the number-one air polluter in America.
County commissioners now say they have no choice but to open the door to another toxic neighbor. In late May, the commissioners agreed not to oppose the temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel rods on land owned by the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians (HCN, 9/1/97: A nuclear dump proposal rouses Utah). The county also promised to provide law enforcement and firefighting services to the 820-acre site.
In exchange, a consortium of utility companies will pay at least $90 million and perhaps as much as $300 million to the county over the next 40 years - potentially more than the impoverished Goshutes will gain from the storage site.
Commissioners say the agreement will benefit the 36,000-person county, whose deserts and rugged mountains yield few ways of making a living. "This waste is coming anyway, and without the contract it would be coming for free," says commissioner Gary Griffith.
Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, a strong opponent of the project, called the agreement a "disappointment."
The project still faces significant hurdles, including opposition from within the tribe, permit requirements by the Department of Transportation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and a belligerent state governor. But after the announcement of the county agreement, Leavitt acknowledged for the first time that the state may not be able to stop the project. The NRC held hearings on the project in Salt Lake City in late June, and utility companies involved with the site say waste could begin arriving as early as 2003.