February 5, 2013

They Kept Ward Valley Nuclear-Free


Ward Valley (Photo: Center for Land Use Interpretation/Creative Commons License)

by Chris Clarke

It's an embarrassing admission for a confirmed California desert rat like me, but I've never been to Ward Valley. Not really. Oh, I've crossed the valley near its north end on Interstate 40 dozens of times. I've done the same thing where Route 62 crosses the south end of Ward Valley. But I've never gotten off the highway, never walked out onto the valley floor among the low creosote and yuccas and chollas and just breathed.

There's no particular hurry: Ward Valley's hundreds of square miles of open desert will be there when I get around to visiting. 20 years ago that wasn't a sure thing.

Ward Valley is a broad, sloping basin that runs north-south for about 65 miles, an undeveloped stretch of desert that connects the eastern ends of Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. It's essentially a big bowl of creosote, undisturbed except for a few dirt roads here and there and by World War II-era tank tracks still struggling to heal after 70 years, flanked by the Old Woman and Paiute mountains to the west and the Sacramento, Stepladder, and Turtle mountains to the east. Homer Wash, a broad, meandering and braided seasonal watercourse fringed with acacia trees and ocotillo, runs along the floor of the valley. Dropping 3,000 feet in its journey of more than 50 miles, it eventually drains into Danby Dry Lake.

Uphill from the wash is creosote and gravel, dissected by smaller tributaries that feed Homer Wash when in flood. At an altitude running from 3,000' at its north end to around 600 at its south, Ward Valley is thus excellent habitat for desert tortoises. Thirty years ago tortoise population densities ran as high as 120 adults per square mile.

It's one of those places in the California Desert where you can find yourself 20 miles off the pavement without much problem, camping out in the open without seeing another human being for days, aside from those traveling overhead on their way in and out of LAX. Or so I've been told.

This is where California almost put its final dump for low-level nuclear waste.

"Low-level nuclear waste" sounds relatively innocuous, as such things go. "Low level" can't be as bad as "high-level" waste, right? One imagines a bit of medical waste, a contaminated rubber glove or a boot here and there, set safely out in the middle of the desert for a few years to allow its radioactivity clock to run down. The truth is a lot more complex. "Low level" and "high level" are administrative terms, not scientific ones. Low-level waste does indeed include things like gloves and boots, as well as other materials that have become contaminated through exposure to radioactive material. It is generally far less radioactive than, say, spent nuclear reactor fuel. But low-level waste can actually contain spent fuel in minute amounts, irradiated tools, pieces of decommissioned reactor buildings, and so forth. The U.S. Department of Energy projected that Ward Valley's proposed nuclear waste dump would quite likely have received shipments of waste contaminated with some of the longest-lived radionuclides generally handled as waste, including radioactive isotopes of cesium as well as strontium and even plutonium.

Over the years, in fact, Ward Valley's proposed nuclear waste dump might have hosted as much as 100 pounds of plutonium.

The plan was part of California's attempt to comply with a 1980 federal directive, Public Law 96-573, which delegated responsibility for handling low-level waste to individual states, or groups of states. In 1982, the California legislature passed AB 1513, which among other things directed the state's Department of Health Services (DHS) to start looking for a place to put California's low-level waste, and to find a dump operator to manage the stuff.

One company after another was selected by DHS to run a potential California low-level waste dump, and then one after another backed away when they figured out the potential liabilities. Finally, DHS landed on U.S. Ecology, a company with a somewhat Orwellian name that ran a number of low-level waste dumps across the country, including one near Beatty, Nevada.

U.S. Ecology took some time to decide where to propose the dump. The company considered alternate sites in Silurian Valley, north of Baker, and in the Panamint Valley near Ridgecrest and Lone Pine. In March 1988, the company announced it had found its preferred site: on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the north end of Ward Valley.

By then California had joined a waste disposal "compact" of states including Arizona and the Dakotas, meaning that radioactive waste from those states would likely be coming to Ward Valley. What's more, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- which had power to order waste to any appropriate low-level waste dump -- could send shipments from anywhere in the country to the proposed Ward Valley dump.

When it got there, the waste would be put in unlined trenches in the valley's gravelly soil covering about five football fields' area. There it would be vulnerable to windstorms, flash floods, and other disturbances, and free to leak radioactive materials into the surrounding desert.

In the late 1980s, California's antinuclear movement had dwindled somewhat from its peak during the Diablo Canyon years, but a few organizations took up the fight. There was the Committee to Bridge the Gap, based in Los Angeles. There were Northern California's Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition and Greenaction. Activists from the Sierra Club and CalPIRG and the Abalone Alliance other such groups delivered testimony at public hearings, distributed petitions, and alerted their memberships. I played a peripheral role myself, putting out a special Ward Valley issue of Terrain, the Bay Area environmental monthly I edited at the time.

But the core of the movement to oppose Ward Valley didn't come from the coast. It came from people whose ancestors have lived in the desert for millennia. Though California's native desert people had been historically slow to involve themselves in "white people's politics," the notion that Ward Valley might be graced with nuclear waste dangerous for thousands of years roused members of the nearby Chemehuevi and Mojave people to action, as well as other Colorado River tribes including the Quechan and Cocopah.

The late Llewellyn Barrackman, an elder of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, put the tribes' opposition as succinctly as possible in a short piece in that issue of Terrain:

They intend to transport nuclear waste through our reservation and through the town of Needles. They have never asked our permission or held a hearing on this issue. There is no provision to train our people should there be an accident, no plans to deal with the terrible dangers of a nuclear waste transport accident.

We will be needing water to grow. There is much water beneath Ward Valley and it will eventually become contaminated. This is a terrible crime. Our poor desert tortoise never even had a chance. Both the tortoise and the land are sacred to us. We have used this land for thousands of years. We use the plants there to heal ourselves and renew ourselves. Now it will all be destroyed. It's wrong all the way around.

Over the decade of the 1990s, tribal resistance to the project grew. Elders held vigils both on the land and elsewhere; by the late 1990s, the vigils on the project site had become a full-scale occupation. Where the project's opponents had originally been a few coastal urban environmentalists, within a few years Native opposition was the face of the campaign to keep Ward Valley nuclear-free.

As I describe in Part 1 of this article, an unprecedented coalition of Native Californian desert tribes and other environmental activists fought the State of California to a standstill 15 years ago on a proposal to dump low-level nuclear waste in Ward Valley, about 20 miles east of Needles. The activists who fought the project had public sympathy on their side and expert political sensibilities. But they had something else on their side as well: science.

Though the plans for the Ward Valley dump had been in the works since Reagan was in the White House, and the project's Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) had already been released two years before he took office, most of the political maneuvering over Ward Valley took place during the Clinton administration. From the outset of his administration, Clinton and his Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt clashed with California Governor Pete Wilson over the dump site, though it seemed more out of a White House desire that the issue go away than anything else.

Two weeks before Clinton took office, Bush's Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan handed over 1,000 acres of Ward Valley to the California DHS, a necessary step in licensing the dump. The land transfer was halted almost immediately by U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel, after the Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition filed suit to stop the transfer.

That transfer would never go through, but we wouldn't find that out for another seven years.

In the interim, U.S. Ecology's proposal started taking serious hits. During the Bush administration, the Executive Branch and Wilson's office had worked hand in hand to make the dump happen, with BLM handling the environmental review process -- dogged by accusations of insufficient public comment periods -- and Wilson vetoing bills that would restrict operation of the dump. While the Clinton administration was by no means radically environmentalist, after 1993 the White House was less willing to bend rules to get the dump established.

In mid-1993 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed critical habitat for the desert tortoise, which had been listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1989. That proposed critical habitat included all of Ward Valley, adding significant complexity to the process of launching a nuke dump on federal land. By 1995, biologists studying Ward Valley tortoises noted a significant drop in numbers, and found that the newly discovered Upper Respiratory Distress disease was prevalent in torts in neighboring territories to which U.S. Ecology proposed relocating tortoises from the project site.

Likely the biggest blow to U.S. Ecology's plans came in the form of one of the smallest atoms in the universe: Tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. Though U.S. Ecology claimed that its unlined ditches wouldn't leak radioactive material into the water table, a study in April 1994 found the radioactive element deep beneath the company's Beatty facility, in geological conditions not too dissimilar to those at Ward Valley.

Though the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report in mid-1995 declaring the proposed dump safe, two of the report's authors dissented -- previously unheard of for NAS studies of this kind. The two dissenting authors cited unknowns involved in leaching of radioactive substances through desert soils such as those in Ward Valley. Five months later, when the 1994 study of tritium migration at Beatty was released to the public, it turned out that the NAS report's authors had not had access to that crucial study when they wrote their report.

In other words, it turned out that U.S. Ecology's dump would almost certainly leak, and the company withheld that fact from federal investigators. The Clinton-Babbitt Interior Department was incensed, and President Clinton announced the land transfer would be put on hold until more studies of tritium migration were complete.

One of opponents' biggest concerns was that leaking radioactive material might make its way to the Colorado River, the water source for millions of people in Los Angeles and elsewhere. U.S. Ecology maintained that Ward Valley was a hydrologically closed basin, meaning that groundwater in the valley didn't have an outlet by which it could leave. The U.S. Geological Survey formally backed U.S. Ecology up in this assessment, but some of its staff geologists weren't so sure.

In February 1993, a year before U.S. Ecology quietly learned that tritium had leaked more than 360 feet deep into the soil beneath its Beatty facility, USGS scientists Howard Wilshire, Keith Howard, and David Miller -- Mojave Desert geology experts all -- wrote a letter to newly appointed Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stating that they'd not been consulted during the Ward Valley environmental assessment process leading up to the publication of the final EIS in 1991. When Babbitt's office asked the three for more details, they responded with a detailed memo describing geological problems with the EIS -- most chillingly, saying that the EIS contained no information on possible hydrological links between Ward Valley and other basins. In other words, if there was any way that nuclear material could leak out of Ward Valley and find its way into the rest of the desert, or even the Colorado River, you wouldn't find that out by reading the project's Environmental Impact Statement.

In a longer report released at the end of 1993, Wilshire, Howard, and Miller provided a list of five possible routes by which Ward Valley groundwater might leak into the Colorado River, a map of which (included at right) was included in the later National Academies of Science report. Of the five possible routes by which groundwater from the Ward Valley dump site might conceivably reach the Colorado, three did so upstream from Parker Dam, where the intake of the Metropolitan Water District's Colorado River Aqueduct might have shunted the potentially contaminated water to the taps of (nowadays) about 17 million people.

What's more, as Wilshire and his USGS colleague Jane Nielsen pointed out two years later in an article in the Ward Valley issue of Terrain I edited in December 1995, the EIS severely underestimated the potential amount of water that might be filtering through the Ward Valley site:

Another important factor at the site is the flow of surface water to Ward Valley from drainages in nearby Lanfair Valley to the northwest. A low divide separates the south-flowing Ward Valley drainage from Sacramento Wash, which discharges surface water from Lanfair Valley eastward into the Colorado River valley. Examination of aerial photographs shows sediment from Lanfair Valley extending in plumes south of the present divide. To change the course of some Lanfair Valley drainages from Sacramento Wash to Ward Valley would take nothing more than a shovel and a few hours of diligent digging. Lanfair Valley drainages now going into Sacramento Wash could flow toward Ward Valley in a period of high rainfall. This would increase the catchment area used to calculate flood risk by a factor of about 25; a wider area catches more water.

More ominously, subsurface connections may exist between Ward Valley ground water and the Colorado River. Fractured and tilted upper plate rocks and detachment faults may lie at shallow depth beneath Ward Valley. Such rocks are exposed between Ward Valley and the Colorado River, a strong indication that they lie close to the surface in the Valley itself. If they do, contaminants in Ward Valley's ground water could flow into the Colorado River. Whether a groundwater connection to the Colorado River constitutes a significant risk depends on the actual (and highly disputed) composition of the waste intended for Ward Valley.

So the dumpsite would almost assuredly leak, and there was a non-zero chance that any leaked radioactive materials would, over time, find their way to whatever Los Angeles had in the 23nd century instead of lawn sprinklers. When it comes to environmental threats, that would seem to be a slam dunk.

And yet there were any number of environmental issues during the Clinton administration's tenure in which cold hard science went up business interests and lost. Look at Clinton's scientifically indefensible Option Nine forest management plan, which sacrificed actual science in the form of wildlife biology to the demands of a few timber companies. In fact, a few times after the Wilshire data became publicly available the Clinton administration appeared ready to sign off on the dump. In May 1995, for instance, Secretary Babbitt agreed to finally release the land for transfer to the state, so long as Governor Wilson made the Department of Health Services (DHS) abide by a few restrictions in the type of waste the site took in and how that waste was handled. Wilson said no. Within a few months, John Garamendi --- who was workng as Deputy Interior Secretary at the time -- tentatively offered to transfer the land without conditions.

But Ward Valley had something that other Clinton-era wildland issues often lacked: a committed base of people of color who'd declared their steadfast opposition to the project.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this story, Ward Valley is of supreme cultural significance to people in the Colorado River Indian Tribes, as well as the Chemehuevi and other local Native people. After a period of gathering strength and determination, desert Native people made that importance known rather emphatically. After a public gathering on the site in October 1995, the local tribes -- with the support of antinuclear activists from throughout California -- made plans to maintain a continuous onsite vigil, to be supported by an emergency influx of supporters from around California if it looked like development was imminent. This onsite presence was managed by Native people, who assumed a leadership role in the occupation of the site, with logistical aid provided by the Morongo Basin-based Desert Environmental Response Team. Onsite presence varied from a few people holding the "fort" to gatherings of 700 or more people during scheduled protests, many of whom went home to organize support in their far-away towns. The Native protest at Ward Valley became a cause celebre.

The Native role in opposition to the Ward Valley dump site didn't just win wide support among other environmental activists. It also helped prevent the Clinton administration from assenting to the dump just to make the pesky issue go away. It was the same President Clinton, after all, who had signed Executive Order 12898 in February, 1994, which ordered federal agencies to note and correct environmental policies that disproportionately affect communities of color. Native people have long been disproportionately burdened by the effects of nuclear and hazardous waste dumping, a reality that was not lost on the feds dealing with Ward Valley. In December 1995, Tom Jensen, Associate Director for Natural Resources of the President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), said in an internal CEQ memo:

"Interior Department officials, relying on the NAS analysis and recommendations, believe that the site can be operated and used with complete safety. Interior would like very much to move ahead with the transfer and put the Ward Valley conflict behind the Administration. That said, they believe that, as a political matter, the Administration simply cannot of its own volition agree to hand the site over in exchange for a check and an unpopular governor's promise to do the right thing."

In other words, the Native occupation -- which would continue for a few years after the memo -- had made the project politically unpalatable even for those in Interior who hadn't been swayed by the science. The political considerations also included opposition from non-Native people. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer had both gone on record opposing the dump, for instance. But it's doubtful whether even they would have had the power to stop a project that both the Governor and the nuclear industry wanted, had not the Clinton administration feared news stories featuring Native people evicted -- once again -- from land they held sacred.

A decade and a half later, the Ward Valley dump is dead. But most of the people who opposed it are not. And the Ward Valley experience emboldened those who took part. It's hard to say how much the Save Ward Valley movement influenced the successful Quechan Tribe lawsuit against the Imperial Solar Two project in 2011, for instance, and Native opposition to other destructive projects is explicitly carried on in the spirit of the Ward Valley encampment.

And perhaps most importantly: Ward Valley still lives. What's left of its tortoise population still walks the washes unimpeded, and the rain that filters through its shallow gravles is no more radioactive than usual.

In an age of seemingly consecutive losses of desert landscapes, that's something to hold on to.