Has Us Ecology Cleaned Up Its Act?

At the Hungry Bear restaurant off old Route 66 in Needles, Calif., nothing gets people more worked up than talking about US Ecology Inc. and its plan to build a nuclear waste dump in the Mojave Desert, 23 miles west of town. "They've shown up with every expert known to man," complains Roy Mills, mayor of Needles, population 5,600. "They give us a pat on the head and tell us we're not smart enough to understand." Across town at Denny's, the talk is the same. "They tell us the dump is going to be high-tech," says Larry Ford, a railroad conductor. "Heck, what's so high-tech about digging a hole, filling it up, and covering it with dirt? My dog does that."

US Ecology, a Louisville subsidiary of Houston's American Ecology Corp., has drawn fire over its scheme to bury nuclear waste in unlined trenches just 19 miles from the Colorado River, the biggest source of water for Southern California. The company stands to take in as much as $3 billion in revenues. But critics contend US Ecology has chosen the easiest, least expensive way to build the Ward Valley dump, ignoring suggestions by the Environmental Protection Agency and local regulators that it should provide plastic trench liners and better monitoring equipment. What worries opponents most, though, is US Ecology's long trail of leaky radioactive dumps and lawsuits. "US Ecology is not fit to run Ward Valley," says U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

In Kentucky, for example, US Ecology's Maxey Flats dump was put on the EPA's Superfund list of most polluted sites in 1986, after plutonium and other radioactive wastes were discovered leaking from the dump. The Illinois attorney general filed suit against the company in 1978, seeking $97 million in damages after radioactivity polluted a lake near US Ecology's Sheffield dump. North Carolina rejected a US Ecology proposal in 1984 to build an incinerator there, citing the company's troubled record. And earlier this year, Nebraska turned away US Ecology over worries about the company's choice of a dump site.

US Ecology acknowledges it has had problems at some sites but insists its operations have improved. It is even reapplying to operate in Nebraska. When it managed Maxey Flats and other sites in the 1970s and early 1980s, says James Shaffner, the company's assistant manager for California operations, less was known about handling radioactive materials--and safety regulations were not well defined. "It was a simpler time in the ecological awareness of the country," he says. In 1978, US Ecology agreed to close Maxey Flats, in return for the state's assuming liability. And in 1988, the company paid $8 million to settle the Illinois suit, without admitting any wrongdoing.

US Ecology's track record is in the spotlight as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt prepares for upcoming hearings on whether to transfer federally owned Ward Valley to the state--allowing US Ecology to proceed. Babbitt is under pressure from Congress to approve the land giveaway, which would help fulfill a 1985 law mandating the creation of a network of low-level nuclear-waste sites.

LAX NOD. As the debate heats up, US Ecology's Shaffner says the company has become the target of "a concentrated disinformation campaign by the entire antinuclear movement." Critics argue that Governor Pete Wilson was lax in giving US Ecology the nod to develop Ward Valley, after three other companies, including Westinghouse Electric Corp. and Morrison Knudsen Corp., bowed out over liability concerns. The state's Health Services Dept. says it studied US Ecology's proposal exhaustively, finding the company "more than qualified." Others say Wilson need only have looked across the state line to get a different picture.

Nevada Governor Bob Miller ordered the shutdown of US Ecology's Beatty facility in January, after a string of problems dating from 1976. That's when US Ecology employees were found selling radioactive tools and other equipment to local residents. US Ecology says it has since dismissed those uorkers. More recently, the dump has been shut down many times for safety violations. The company says the shutdowns, for minor infractions, were motivated largely by politics. But Governor Miller says: "We were in constant disagreement with them about the amount of radioactive waste they were bringing in. I certainly did not have a good working relationship with them." US Ecology's offer of a $20 million donation to the state's cash-strapped prison system if allowed to keep its dump open didn't change Miller's mind.

US Ecology has shown an uncanny ability to wiggle out of tight spots. Take Maxey Flats, which it operated from 1963 to 1977. In 1992, after a six-year battle with the EPA and Kentucky, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the company was not liable for any of the cost of cleaning up the mess--estimates vary from $34 million to $100 million.

Now, US Ecology is trying to win friends in the Golden State. Since 1986, the company has made campaign contributions in California of more than $130,000, according to state records. Recently, US Ecology shipped new computers to the Needles high school. But this isn't going to cut it with Mayor Mills. "I consider that a bribe," he says. Shaffner says: "Anything we do is going to be considered in a negative light." Maybe, but it will take more than a few PCs to convince the people of Needles that this hole in the ground is a good idea.