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Ward Valley, U.S.: Scientists under attack

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 13, 1996) Scientific evaluation of the safety of the proposed Ward Valley nuclear waste dump has come to a halt after the firm chosen to operate the dump threatened to sue the scientists involved.

(463.4597) WISE-Amsterdam -The prolonged and contentious 10-year fight over the dump has centered on whether the federal government should transfer 1,000 acres of Ward Valley land 20 miles from the Colorado River surrounded by six desert park areas for use as a radioactive waste dump. Waste from California and at least three other states -- and possibly wastes from the U.S. Department of Energy -- would be buried in unlined dirt trenches on lands sacred to the Lower Colorado River tribes.

The testing to determine if radioactive waste could leak from the eastern Mojave Desert site was to be carried out by Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and two members of a National Academy of Sciences panel on Ward Valley, for the U.S. Department of the Interior. But U.S. Ecology Inc., the firm licensed by the state of California to run the Ward Valley facility, contends that the research is unnecessary and is part of a campaign by the Clinton administration to stall the project.

In letters to the scientists, lawyers for U.S. Ecology said the delays in opening the dump were highly damaging to the company's interests. They warned the scientists that "should you continue your participation in Interior's ill-advised project, please do so based on the knowledge that U.S. Ecology intends to seek compensation from any persons or entities whose conduct wrongfully injures its interests in this manner."

Deputy U.S. Interior Secretary John Garamendi denounced the letters as "raw intimidation" tactics. "It's a disgusting effort to deny the people of California scientific assurance that the Ward Valley site won't put their health and safety at risk," he said. The two scientists, hydrogeologists Martin Mifflin and Scott W. Tyler, won't do any more work until the federal government agrees to pay their legal costs if they are sued. Mifflin said he was angered by the letter but had to insist on indemnification before doing any more work. "In my experience, it is unprecedented to get that kind of letter for considering a contract to do applied science. It's my profession. But even if a legal action is entered into just for harassment purposes, the court costs could be more than the entire contract is going to pay me," Mifflin said.

Critics of the proposed dump persuaded the Clinton administration to order a new round of testing after radioactive tritium was found 357 feet (about 120 meters) below the surface, near the water table, at another desert dump operated by U.S. Ecology in Beatty, Nevada.

Source: Times (U.S.), 22 November 1996
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