Senator Murkowsky Announces Senate Committee Investigation of Ward Valley Issues

(Senate - November 07, 1997)

[Page: S11918]

Mr. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, I would like to address the issue of low-level waste in this country and the issue of Ward Valley. California is the first State to site a low-level waste facility under legislation passed by Congress which granted States with the authority and responsibility for low-level waste. Low-level radioactive waste is produced from cancer treatments, medical research, industrial activities, and scientific research. In the State of California there are some 800 sites where this medical waste is being stored. It is being stored in temporary facilities that were not designed for permanent storage.

This waste is stored near homes, schools, it's stored at college campuses, medical facilities, and so forth.

This radioactive waste is vulnerable to accidental release from the fires and earthquakes, neither of which are uncommon in California.

Public health and safety demands that this waste be moved from locations scattered across California to a single, monitored location--preferably, in a remote and sparsely populated area.

The State of California is the first State to take advantage of the Federal process that we authorized for the States to develop their own low-level waste sites. But it is interesting to note how the progress has gone--not because of the lack of commitment by California, but the lack of cooperation from the Department of Interior to simply conduct a very simple land exchange. The State of California, in a process which began a decade ago, is trying to get their facility opened. They selected a site known as Ward Valley in the remote Mojave Desert.

The California license was issued in accordance with all State and Federal laws, and has withstood all court challenges. The license contains 130 specific conditions designed to protect public health, safety, and the environment.

But here comes the villain--the Department of Interior--having earlier agreed to sell California the land for the site--changed its mind, returned the check, and has refused to transfer the land.

Since that time, the Department of the Interior has engaged in continuous, purposeful delay. They seek more studies, allegedly to assure that the site will be safe.

We all insist on a safe disposal site, and we expect no less. Thus far, we have had two environmental impact studies and a special National Academy of Science study that all point to the safety of the site.

Now, the State of California, in accordance with the guidelines of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and all applicable State and Federal laws, has done its job and done it well. But the Interior Department is still not satisfied. They want more studies. For starters, they insist on an additional water infiltration study and a third impact environmental statement.

The State of California has generously agreed to perform the water infiltration study prior to any land transfer which was a tremendous concession on California's part. However, Interior has not thus far allowed California access to the land to conduct the very tests that Interior insists upon. Instead of working to resolve the matter, the Department of the Interior seems to be engaged in a cycle of continuous study and endless delay. One has to wonder why the Department of the Interior is taking such a tack.

Are these delays and demands for more tests designed to assure public safety? Or are they merely part of a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign? Well, we can answer that question.

Several weeks ago, a memo we uncovered from the Department of the Interior shed an extraordinary light on this question. In fact, this memo makes the motivations behind the Interior Department's actions absolutely clear.

I have read this memorandum once on the floor of this body. I think it needs to be read again. This is a memo from Deputy Secretary John Garamendi, to Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Department of the Interior. It is short enough to read in its entirety.

It says:

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February 21, 1996

TO: Bruce Babbitt
FROM: John Garamendi.
SUBJECT: Ward Valley:

Attached are the Ward Valley clips. We have taken the high ground. [Governor Pete] Wilson is the venal toady of special interests.

I do not think Greenpeace will picket you any longer. I will maintain a heavy PR campaign until the issue is finally won.

There you have the words of John Garamendi relative to his willingness to work with California to act in order that the low-level waste at some 800 sites in California can be removed and put in one area that will be monitored out in the Mojave Desert.

I think this memorandum shows that Ward Valley has become a political football, a public relations issue. It also suggests that Interior has no plans other than to delay the transfer of the land. They just want to wage a PR campaign and delay a decision until somebody else's watch. They don't want to make this decision on their watch. They are putting it off because they know this administration is a few years from becoming history. They don't want to address it, they don't want the responsibility.

But what has Secretary Garamendi told the Senate with regard to Ward Valley? How do his private statements compare to his public ones?

At his confirmation hearing on July 27, 1995, John Garamendi testified under oath to our committee that the Ward Valley issue should and would be resolved quickly. Two years later, at a hearing on July 22, 1997, John Garamendi told the committee that he would work in good faith to resolve the matter in further negotiations with the State of California.

Well, we still don't have a resolution. California does not even have permission to do the additional testing Interior seems to want to see performed.

Instead of moving a process forward and transferring the land, Interior seems intent on waging a public relations campaign designed to further delay rather than enlighten.

Now, what have others said about the Interior Department's handling of this issue? Let's look at the experts.

The General Accounting Office, GAO, contends that the Department of the Interior is attempting to assess the site's suitability--a job that belongs to California by law and that California has already undertaken and completed--despite the fact that Interior `lacks the criteria and expertise' for the job. That is the opinion of the General Accounting Office--that Interior lacks the criteria and expertise.

The GAO report also contends that there is no need for the new environmental impact statement sought by Interior since the substantive issues have already been addressed and that new information uncovered since the last environmental impact statement is generally favorable to the facility.

Well, this report is too lengthy to insert into the Record, but for the benefit of my colleagues, I am referring to GAO report RCED-97-184 (PDF file--400K),(text)(summary) dated July 1997, for anybody who might want to look it up.

To again summarize what GAO says, Mr. President, it says: First, Interior is trying to do a job that belongs to the State of California. The State of California was given the authority to do it; second, Interior is calling for new studies that aren't needed; third, Interior lacks the technical expertise to even perform these tasks.

GAO isn't alone in their criticism of the Department of Interior's handling of this issue. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC, has joined in the process as well.

Specifically, the NRC has been critical of the Interior Department for distributing fact sheets which contain errors, misleading statements, and information falsely attributed to the NRC that was actually provided by project opponents.

That is pretty strong stuff, Mr. President, but that is factual.

So not only is Interior waging a PR campaign, they are playing fast and loose with the truth in the conduct of that campaign, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Mr. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, you might ask, why would a Senator from Alaska even care about a facility in California that is not needed to dispose of radioactive waste generated in Alaska? We don't generate hardly any.

Part of the answer involves my responsibilities as the chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and our oversight responsibilities. Not surprisingly, my position on Ward Valley is the same one taken by my predecessor as chairman, Bennett Johnston of Louisiana. He understood, as I do, that Ward Valley is really more than a debate over the future of a thousand acres of land in the Mojave Desert; it is more than a debate over the disposition of low-level radioactive waste in California, Arizona, and the Dakotas; it is even more than the debate over the viability or even the future of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act. I suggest there is much more at stake.

I am taking on this battle because there is an intrinsic value in opposing the careless disregard of science and the decisionmaking process. It's important to stand up against those who engage in this dangerous manipulation of public fear. It is my job to work against the oppression of the public good by a vocal few. Because I very much care about human health, safety and the environment, I believe it makes sense to store this radioactive low-level waste at a single, monitored location in the desert, rather than at 800-some locations throughout California, near schools, neighborhoods, hospitals, medical centers, and so forth.

Finally, I believe it is important to ensure that the Government keeps its promises. It was the intent of Congress, when it passed the Low-Level Waste Policy Act of 1980, and further amended it in 1985, that the safe management of low-level radioactive waste would be a responsibility of the States. That is precisely what the Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, lobbied for when he was Governor. He argued that low-level waste should be a State responsibility. At that time, he was serving with the now President, but then Governor, Bill Clinton in the National Governors' Association. Well, he has changed his position.

I know the view from the top floor of the Department of the Interior changes one's perspective from time to time, but it's difficult to appreciate, much less justify, the actions of the Department in this regard.


WARD VALLEY (Senate - November 07, 1997)

Are the continuing delays at Ward Valley the good-faith actions of public officials purporting to act in the public interest? I think not.

To answer those questions, I am announcing today that we are going to explore, in great detail on the committee, the Ward Valley issue in the next session, with a series of investigatory oversight hearings. What we are attempting to obtain, obviously, are the facts on why this administrative bungling seems to continue. I would like all who have an interest in this issue to be aware that these hearings will commence early in the next session.

In the interim, we will be seeking relevant documentation from the Department of the Interior and the White House. With that notice given, I thank you, Mr. President, and yield the floor.

I suggest the absence of a quorum.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

The assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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Mr. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

Mr. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the period of morning business be extended for about 5 or 6 minutes.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

Mr. MURKOWSKI. I thank the Chair.