Utah has the nation’s first chemical incinerator

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    By Kristina Whitley

    On summer evenings, Vernon, Utah looks like a modern Norman Rockwell painting: kids and dogs playing in giant, fenceless backyards, the sweet and ever-present smell of corn growing, and satellite dishes on almost every house (no cable TV this far out).

    The four or five streets which comprise Vernon are only randomly paved. But no one seems to mind. In fact, that”s one of the reasons Vernonites choose to live there.

    “It”s nice and quiet,” Vernon resident Mark Smith reflected, “Nice and rural.”

    Main Street boasts a post office, fire station, a little, red, one-room schoolhouse, and an LDS chapel. Smith explained that the 200 people who make up this town in Western Tooele County like living here because everybody knows each other.

    “I don”t have to worry about where my kids are. Everybody watches out for everybody else,” he said.

    Vernon is a good two-hour car ride from Salt Lake, 40 minutes from Tooele. But it”s walking distance from the Tooele Army Depot chemical incinerator. When the wind turns, the corn smell is obtrusively overwhelmed by the smell of burning chemicals.

    The chemical incinerator is the first of its kind in the country, and was built to dispose of 13,616 tons of nerve gas and blister agent.

    Like most Vernonites, though, Smith is unconcerned.

    “I”m not worried about getting cancer. I”m not worried about a spill.”

    Smith”s attitude is shared by many Tooele residents. A Deseret News poll conducted on February 14 found that most Tooele County residents support hazardous waste disposal in Utah.

    While several waste management companies have petitioned to store more and hotter wastes in the last several years, and with eight other hazardous waste facilities already running in the county, most Tooele residents wouldn”t bat an eyelash at the idea of just a little more hazardous waste.

    “Nobody really wants this stuff in their backyard, but we really wouldn”t notice it”s there,” Smith said.

    While Tooele residents seem characteristically unperturbed, Salt Lake suburbanites and environmentalists fret over the possibility of higher-level hazardous wastes in the Beehive state.

    At the same time, Utah”s government officials, who have historically welcomed the new jobs and tax revenues which hazardous waste facilities generate, are outspoken in their opposition to a proposed nuclear waste facility on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation in the West Desert.

    Utahns have never agreed about what to do with the nation”s hazardous waste. But recently, their varied attitudes can be characterized as nothing short of schizophrenic.

    Private Fuel Storage

    In 1997, the Skull Valley Tribe of Goshutes signed an agreement with a consortium of waste facilities called Private Fuel Storage.

    During the last four years, they have worked through the petition process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to store high-level nuclear waste on their reservation west of Tooele.

    The NRC is expected to decide whether the facility can be built in April 2002.

    Utah”s relationship with the nation”s hazardous waste has always been riddled with controversy. Since before the above-ground testing in the Nevada desert in the 1950s caused high cancer rates in Southern Utah “Downwinders,” Utahns have wrestled with hazardous watse issues.

    Indeed, according to Utah Department of Environmental Quality Hazardous Waste Director Alan Moore, Utah currently stores more than four times as much hazardous waste as it produces each year.

    Utah Chapter Sierra Club volunteer Cindy King said one of the most important issues facing Utahns is hazardous and nuclear waste storage.

    Apparently, many Utahns agree. According to a February 11 Deseret News-KSL TV poll, 79 percent of Utahns said they were “very concerned or somewhat concerned” about Utah”s role in the nation”s hazardous waste problem.

    Even Utah government officials have come out in force against the Goshute/ PFS proposal. Shortly after the Goshute filed their proposal, Governor Leavitt commented on KBYU that “Building the biggest nuclear waste graveyard in the country isn”t a good quality of life decision for anyone in Utah.”

    King believes Utah has been targeted by Eastern-based hazardous waste storage companies.

    “Is it environmentally just to store [hazardous waste] in socially/ economically deprived areas versus the rich areas?” she said. “Absolutely not.”

    According to Sue Martin, Public Affairs Consultant for PFS, nuclear fuel is safely stored all over the country, and Utah is simply a convenient place to centralize storage.

    “It really doesn”t matter whether [a storage facility] is on the outskirts of Washington DC (where there is one now) or the outskirts of Minneapolis (where there is one now), or out here in Skull Valley,” Martin said.

    Coordinator for State Opposition to High Level Nuclear Waste Connie Nakahara believes Utah is unfairly targeted because of its vast open spaces and large amount of federal lands.

    “Utah is also targeted because of the relatively small delegation Utah has,” Nakahara said.

    With only five members in the House of Representatives, and not much sway with the NRC, Utahns sometimes have little say in national decisions about hazardous waste policy.

    In April, the NRC usurped state legislative power by granting International Uranium Corp. permission to treat 17,750 tons of radioactive sludge in White Mesa, just outside Moab, Utah.

    Several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, are in process of petitioning the NRC to allow public comment on the White Mesa waste.

    King believes public participation is key in preventing more hazardous waste from entering the state.

    “If we don”t have public participation, our government has a blank check with no accountability and no acceptability,” she said.

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