Incinerator opponents crowd public hearing

Wednesday, January 26, 2000

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - About 1,000 people crowded a middle school auditorium for a public hearing on a planned nuclear waste incinerator at Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

They filled the bleachers and seats and sat on the floor Tuesday as federal and state officials explained the need for the project west of Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The "not very exciting" items to be burned include pieces of plastic and clothing, according to Alice Williams, deputy manager of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

"What makes it different is the plutonium contamination on it," she said.

The regulators had a tough sell before them. When Mary Mitchell, vice president of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, asked the incinerator opponents to stand up, only about 25 people remained sitting.

"Look what you have overlooked. Look what you have underestimated," she said. "We will not be silent."

Speakers were limited to five minutes each, and all who spoke during the meeting's first hour opposed the incinerator.

The incinerator is part of an up-to-$1.2 billion project to treat about 60,000 cubic meters of Cold War weapons production waste being stored at INEEL, a complex nearly the size of Rhode Island.

The waste to be burned, about 15 percent, is either too dangerous to ship or contaminated with PCBs, which prevent its storage at a site outside Carlsbad, New Mexico unless it is processed.

Many Jackson residents are worried that PCBs and plutonium could be blown from the incinerator to northwest Wyoming, about 90 miles to the west, home to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

Jim Laybourn of Jackson criticized the environmental impact study for the project as vague.

"That is not acceptable in such a dangerous project," he said. "We're talking about dealing with the world's most dangerous product."

But Stacey Francis with INEEL defended the facility to be built by British Nuclear Fuels, Ltd.

"What's important to me is that this waste is the result of the Cold War, and the freedoms we enjoy today," she said. "Now is the time to take care of the waste so our children and grandchildren don't have to deal with it,"

Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, represented by renowned attorney Gerry Spence, has filed a $1 billion class action lawsuit to stop the project. The lawsuit in part claims that Wyoming residents were insufficiently notified of it.

In a recent Pocatello, Idaho, newspaper ad, the organization warned that "emissions, spills and accidents could change the future of Idaho's potato crop overnight."

Energy Department spokesman Allan Jines has said that tests have been conducted over 30 years to ensure the safety of nuclear waste incinerators.

He also said the department has used computer simulations that take into account complex wind patterns in the area and toxic discharges would be "well below" federal health regulations.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has been accepting testimony on a permit from that state which outlines how hazardous wastes and toxic chemicals would be handled at the plant.

Construction could begin once the permit and another setting air emission limits are granted.