A bitter valley waits

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

AMARGOSA VALLEY, Nev. - "Yea, though we live in the shadows of Death Valley and Yucca Mountain, we will not fear," it said on the T-shirt of the man in front of me as I checked into the Longstreet Inn and Casino in Amargosa Valley late on a hot dusty afternoon.

"We will be happy, make milk, and prosper," the message on his back continued. It was signed "Elsie," presumably the cow with the American flag painted on her side, who also decorated the shirt. "Ponderosa Dairies, Amargosa Valley, Nevada" underlined the effort.

I introduced myself to the wearer, Jim Hooton, who informed me he was not a dairy farmer, but did odd jobs around this small roadside resort on the border between Nevada and California. Hooton also owns the property closest to Yucca Mountain in a valley that has around 1,500 residents, all prospective neighbors of a future repository for high-level nuclear waste. I finagled an invitation to visit his place the next morning.

"Amargosa" comes from the Spanish for "bitter." The name, which comes from the intermittent river that flows here, fits the valley. It is home to two gas stations, a whorehouse, scattered farms, a smattering of trailers amid cottonwood and ash trees, and a saloon with a horse tied up out front. That's in addition to the casino plopped down on the border to catch the first tourists from California.

I soon found that a kind of bitterness runs through the valley, leavened with patriotism, skepticism, and a raw sort of frontier fatalism.

"Most of us think (the nuclear waste) will go in, whether we like it or not," Michael DeLee, a 31-year-old pistachio grower and father of two, told me when I met with him later that night. "I want a decision based on science. Have (federal officials) changed the rules? That's a political decision. I'm not going to stand in front of the railroad cars (filled with nuclear waste) if it matches the rules. But if they change the rules, I can't make promises."

His friend, Lavonne Selbach, said: "I'm 65. I'm not going to be here. I just think it should be done with caution."

Living with uncertainty

The next morning, Jim Hooton met me out at his place, a couple of acres of scattered junk on the east side of Highway 95, just 11 miles across a creosote flat from Yucca Mountain. Hooton used to work at the Nevada Test Site. "As far as Yucca Mountain," he said, "I think it's the best place to put it. It's already been messed up for 20 years. Why mess up another place?"

But most people I met expressed more ambivalence, including Ed Goedhart, manager of Ponderosa Dairies, which feeds 5,300 dairy cows on alfalfa grown in Amargosa Valley. Half of the herd is organic. Every day the dairy produces 32,000 gallons of milk that are distributed throughout the Southwest. Goedhart took me out to a field where a pivot sprinkler was spraying a thousand gallons of water a minute on the crop.

"They aren't storing it up there yet," he assured me, gesturing toward Yucca Mountain. "We're still investing, still growing, still thriving."

I asked if he could live with the dump. "It's tough to say," he said. "I think we could live with it. Who knows?" But he explained what might happen someday if Yucca Mountain failed. "If there was a container leaking, it would hit the water table," he said. "That migration would pass right by here and end up in Death Valley."

Back at the Longstreet, I asked Cassandra Mills, the teen-aged waitress at the cafe, what she thought. "It scares me," she said. "On the other hand, it might put us on the map. That might be good, unless we have an accident. It could go either way."

On my way out of the valley the next morning, I stopped to see Ralph McCracken, who grows pistachios and raises horses with his wife, Debra, on 240 acres. It smelled sweet. But the heat was on.

"I'm not an anti-nuker," he told me first thing. "I can get along with this, if it's done right," he said. "But the storage of spent fuel is a real issue. It has to be done right.

"That's not what's happening here," he said. "They have found out some things about that mountain that should have disqualified it a long time ago, and they keep looking at it. Now they want the rules changed to fit the mountain."

When I asked if he would leave if the waste came, he looked at me hard. He and his wife had tried to have kids but failed. "If we had kids, we'd look someplace else," he said.

I remembered something Mike DeLee had asked me on my first night in Amargosa Valley. "Will it affect your life?" he said. I didn't know the answer.

"Very few people could say yes," DeLee said. "People 3,000 miles away think the world is ending. What really matters are the people who are here and will be here in the future."

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jon Christensen