What This Town Needs Is... Nuclear Waste?

Max Cruse sips coffee and stares out across the soybean fields bordering the Hen House Restaurant in tiny Martinsville, Ill. "This town will die without that thing," he says. Down the road, the folks in Kona Morrill's farmhouse think differently. "It could kill us," she insists. Chimes in teacher Steve Cloud: "The town's gonna die, anyway."

Martinsville, a depressed 1,100-person hamlet 170 miles south of Chicago, is on the verge of communal meltdown. The issue? Whether the town should become home to Illinois' low-level nuclear radiation dump. In one corner: townsfolk who believe the economic lift provided by the 1,400-acre waste dump could save Martinsville. Their sworn opponents: locals who fear the effects of radiation.

SLAIN CATTLE. It's not a friendly fight. People say the battle has produced slain cattle, shot-up mailboxes, and death threats. It has even split families. "My brother supports the dump," says Morrill. "We haven't spoken in over a year."

The town's predicament isn't singular. Across the farm belt, hundreds of small towns have tried to stave off dissolution by latching on to public-works projects such as prisons and landfills. Now, states are providing another lifeline: dumps to hold low-level nuclear waste from such things as reactors and hospitals. Compelled to find local homes for nuclear waste by 1993, states including Illinois, New York, and California are offering cold, hard cash and the promise of jobs to desperate towns.

Martinsville city officials have begged for the dump since Illinois started searching for a site in 1987. Small wonder: The once-bustling Clark County town has seen its fortunes slide since the mid-1970s, when Interstate 70 bypassed it. Unemployment has hovered at 14% for years. Two years ago, the town lost its bank; this year, the newspaper folded. Townsfolk fret that the high school, with an enrollment of 115--50% less than a decade ago--will go next. "If it goes, we're gone," says resident Joe Boyer, who wants the dump.

Many townspeople welcomed the Illinois Nuclear Safety Dept. when it blew into town three years ago. The agency promised that whichever town hosted the dump would rake in user fees of at least $1 million a year from its manager, Chem-Nuclear Systems Inc., a unit of Waste Management Inc. That's big money for a town with an annual budget of $540,000. In addition, said the Nuclear Safety Dept., the dump would create 100 jobs, most paying over $20,000 a year.

The town is already getting a taste of the money the dump would bring in. The state, using a kitty funded by fees levied on Illinois power companies, has pumped $1.2 million into Martinsville since 1988 to pay for the disruption caused by planning for the dump. "They're trying to buy us," charges Morrill. "Nonsense," scoffs Mayor Truman Dean. "We're just gettin' paid for our troubles."

Dean is certainly making the most of it. The city has given $200,000 to the school district, which bought computers and fixed the high school roof, and spent $24,000 for new police cars. The American Legion got $3,000 for a new freezer. And each citizen of Martinsville got $100 last winter to apply toward December's utility bills. Meanwhile, the state gave rich contracts to locals, including $160,000 over two years to Dale Huffington, who runs a Clark County economic development firm.

BAKE SALES. The cash hasn't softened the opposition. Concerned Citizens of Clark County raised $8,500, mainly through bake sales, to fund a study of the farmland selected by the state to house the dump. The study concluded that radioactive waste from the proposed site, roughly a mile from Martinsville's main street, could leak into the town's groundwater. Proponents reply that the facility's state-of-the-art engineering will eliminate any risk of leaks. A state commission is supposed to resolve the dispute after hearings in mid-August. A decision is expected before yearend.

Meanwhile, back at Morrill's kitchen table, dump opponents are talking about a speech Huffington prepared in 1988. In a draft sent to the Nuclear Safety Dept., Huffington wrote that a containment pond for potentially radioactive water "will be a good source of recreation." Although Huffington deleted the remark, Morrill is scornful. "Those people don't know what they're talking about," she says. With or without the dump, the wounds from this battle could bleed Martinsville to death.

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