Utahns could kill radioactive dump

  • SACRIFICE ZONE: A backlash against Utah's reputation as a dumping ground has landed an anti-radioactive waste initiative on the ballot

    Steve Griffin photo, The Salt Lake Tribune
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Note: this is one of several feature stories in this issue about the 2002 election.

Writer Chip Ward once called Tooele County, Utah, "the most extensive environmental sacrifice zone in the nation." Covering a swath of the surreal West Desert nearly the size of Massachusetts, the county is home to a bombing range, chemical-weapons incinerator, biological warfare proving ground, and a magnesium smelter ranked for years as the nation's worst air-polluter.

It's also home to a dump run by Envirocare of Utah, which buries 14 million cubic feet of mining and radioactive waste from across the nation every year. While Envirocare has endured legislative audits and sharp fines for environmental misdeeds over the years, most of the company's critics now grudgingly admit that the facility is well-managed.

That doesn't mean they like what Envirocare is doing. After a long and unsuccessful fight to get the state Legislature to more strictly regulate the company, critics took the issue straight to the public. This spring, activists launched a citizens' initiative that would triple the cost of disposal at Envirocare and forbid the company from ever accepting "hotter" and more lucrative nuclear waste. They collected almost 96,000 signatures to put it on the November ballot.

But in July, Envirocare responded with a last-minute counterattack. Three weeks before the initiative deadline, Envirocare employees paired up with notaries public and started knocking on doors in rural counties. They convinced about 2,500 people to remove their signatures from the initiative - just enough for the measure to fail.

"They went out and beat the hell out of people to convince them to have their signatures removed," says Frank Pignanelli, a former state legislator turned lobbyist who heads up the Utahns for Radioactive Waste Control campaign.

Hugh Matheson, chairman of the Envirocare-financed Utahns Against Unfair Taxes, sees it differently: "It was good old-fashioned face-to-face political workmanship."

Whatever it was, it was by no means the end of the fight.

A shady history

In the mid-1980s, Iranian-born entrepreneur Khosrow Semnani started putting together a plan to turn an isolated uranium tailings dump near the Nevada border into a 640-acre low-level radioactive landfill. Envirocare formally opened its doors for business in 1988, and by all accounts, Semnani has built a thriving business. Envirocare now has 400 employees and yearly revenues estimated at $100 million.

But the company also picked up its share of adversaries. "We're tired of being dumped on," says Jason Groenewold with the local nonprofit Families Against Incinerator Risk. "Utah has taken more than its fair share of this waste. It's time for the state to stand up and stop out-of-state companies from dumping their waste here."

Watchdogs like Groenewold and the group Utah Legislative Watch contend that Envirocare has enjoyed a long and cozy relationship with the state's political establishment. The company is consistently one of the top contributors to the campaigns of Utah's lawmakers, governor and congressional delegation. Several former lawmakers have gone on to work as Envirocare lobbyists.

While Envirocare spokeswoman Bette Arial shrugs off suggestions that the company leans on its lobbying might, it's clear that Envirocare has strong backers in the state Legislature. "Most people feel comfortable with the waste that's out there," says state Sen. Michael Waddoups, a Salt Lake City Republican. "It's just a few radical environmentalists who have stirred things up."

But Envirocare has been dogged by fallout from improper business dealings. A trial in August 2001 revealed that Larry Anderson, as director of Utah's Radiation Control Division, helped Semnani put together a deal to buy state land surrounding the dump for just $40 an acre and wrangle an exception to a federal law, making Envirocare the first and only radioactive-waste landfill on private land. In return, Anderson received $600,000 in cash, gold and real estate.

After citizens' groups pushed four times for a tax increase, the state Legislature finally handed Envirocare a hike last year that could raise its taxes from $3 million to $7 million. But that falls well short of the $37 million advocates were pushing for.

Taking it to the street

The citizens' initiative unveiled this April, called the Radioactive Waste Restrictions Act, would hike taxes on low-level radioactive waste coming into the state, and prohibit Envirocare from taking the highly radioactive waste it has long campaigned for. Some supporters say that it could establish the state's authority to regulate imported waste. That could set a precedent in the state's fight against the Skull Valley Goshute Indians' proposal to store high-level nuclear waste on their reservation in Tooele County (see story above).

Although supporters say the initiative would raise $200 million for Utah schoolchildren and homeless people, it seems calculated to force Envirocare to close down. In April, Phyllis Sorensen, then president of the Utah Education Association, a major financial backer of the initiative, told the Deseret News, "If (Envirocare) shuts down altogether, fine. We don't even want the (low) level radioactive wastes here."

Envirocare's Arial says initiative supporters have purposely blurred the lines between the low-level radioactive waste the company accepts and the high-level nuclear waste the Goshutes want to store. "The public has been purposely misled by various groups. I'm sure they do not understand the difference."

Nonetheless, when Envirocare killed the initiative by removing signatures, the initiative's backers quickly fought back with an appeal to the Utah Supreme Court. They argued that a provision in the state's citizen initiative law requiring a minimum number of signatures in 20 of Utah's 29 counties was unconstitutional, because it gave rural voters unfair sway over their urban counterparts.

In a 3-2 decision on Aug. 26, justices said the law rendered a signature from one of Utah's sparsely populated rural counties "1,000 times as a valuable" as an urban signature, and ordered the initiative back on the ballot.

Now, Utahns Against Unfair Taxes is gearing up for a full-scale, statewide media blitz backed by more than a million dollars from Envirocare. And although the initiative's supporters have no access to that kind of money, they say the Supreme Court's decision will finally put the issue where it belongs. Says Pignanelli, "It means Utahns will have the decision instead of the politicians."

Tim Westby writes from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "State's big nuke waste fight takes a hit."

You can contact ...

  • Envirocare of Utah, 801/532-1330, www.envirocareutah.com;
  • Utahns Against Unfair Taxes, 801/359-1907, www.uaut.org;
  • Utahns for Radioactive Waste Control, 801/706-5350, www.saferbetterutah.org.