Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Why so casual about Idaho becoming a dumping ground?

Becoming a dumping ground for radioactive waste is not what reasonable people envision for Idaho, whose breathtaking scenery and high regard for environmental vigilance are utterly incompatible with nuclear poisons.

Yet, Idahoans are just learning of how much of a dumping ground for harmful substances the state is becoming.

A shipment of 80 rail cars loaded with radioactive sand from the deserts of Kuwait are en route to Owyhee County, where the waste will be buried on a 1,100-acre tract operated by American Ecology, a misleading name for a company that deals in moving and disposing of toxic waste.

The 100 acres designated as a graveyard contains remnants of radioactive hardware from military bases in Texas, Nevada and Idaho.

Idaho's Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission dismiss any environmental concerns. The radioactive sand from Kuwait is low-level.

That is hardly the sole issue, however.

First, although radioactivity in the sand was caused by fires that melted vehicles and munitions at a U.S. base in Kuwait, one wonders why the Kuwaiti government shouldn't have been responsible for disposing of the sand in the thousands of square miles of its desert, including areas considered uninhabitable because of the 1991 oil well fires ignited by retreating Iraqi troops that left whole areas poisoned virtually in perpetuity.

Second, despite assurances that radioactive sand from Kuwait poses no risks, the fact is the burial ground in Owyhee County surely won't be any use for generations to come for any domestic purpose because of the toxicity of the waste.

Third, using Idaho as a cemetery for radioactive waste is an unwelcome precedent. What will state officials say if other disposal companies come calling, buying land for other industrial garbage, radioactive or not? Would they be denied?

Seepage of industrial waste into groundwater and then into drinking supplies is always a grim potential. Even purified water used in homes around the nation has been found to contain remnants of medications disposed of by consumers. Can radioactivity in sand eventually reaching Idaho's water be totally discounted?

Burying 80 railcars of radioactive sand is being treated far too casually. Idaho must draw a line on what sort of industry it welcomes. Operators of coal-fired generating plants still want to use Idaho as an inexpensive site from which to export power to other states.

Can Idaho argue effectively against such plants and their polluting fallout while welcoming the burial of 6,700 tons of radioactive sand from a Gulf War battlefield?

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