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Know the West

Downwinders speak up and pay up

  More than 500 residents of Jackson Hole, Wyo., packed a meeting hall in late August to fight a nuclear-waste incinerator planned for eastern Idaho. The crowd rallied to the evangelical fervor of Gerry Spence, the flamboyant lawyer who has built a national career on high-profile cases.

By the end of the evening, everyone from movie actors to massage therapists had pledged a total of $496,000 to fight the incinerator, planned for the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls. It would burn mixed hazardous and low-level radioactive waste left over from the Cold War bomb-making era.

The Department of Energy has already completed an environmental impact statement, and its private contractor, British Nuclear Fuels Limited, hopes to begin construction this fall. The project's last hurdle is obtaining a clean-air permit from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

The department held public hearings on the permit last winter. The comment period on Idaho's air permit closed in June after two extensions.

But Jackson Hole residents didn't catch wind of it until late May, when the Idaho nonprofit Snake River Alliance sent a warning letter to the Jackson Hole News. Now, a corps of citizens-turned-activists fears that the incinerator will send a plume of radioactive emissions 90 miles downwind to Wyoming.

"We have systematically given our power to the experts who say they can assure us that any amount (of radiation) is harmless," says Angele Ferre, a Jackson local who has spearheaded the effort. "If one person is harmed by the emissions, then no amounts are harmless."

The federal Department of Energy insists that the project is safe. "The amount of emissions that will be released is infinitesimal, much lower than the amounts of natural radiation to which Wyoming residents are exposed to on a daily basis," says Brad Bugger, a spokesman for the Department of Energy.

But federal officials haven't heard the last of Jackson Hole. On Sept. 17, Gerry Spence sued the Energy Department, claiming the agency didn't look at alternatives to incineration. His backers have raised nearly $1 million. "You don't go to battle without a full war chest," he says. "And I have never fought a battle I couldn't win."

*Rachel Odell