Breach in the wall

Nevada’s governor gives federal officials a leg up on making Yucca Mountain a dump site

Gov. Jim Gibbons has given federal officials state water for use at Yucca Mountain drill sites.

Gov. Jim Gibbons has given federal officials state water for use at Yucca Mountain drill sites.

Photo By David Robert

One of Nevada’s top elected officials has broken away from the state’s traditional united front on the proposed dump for high-level nuclear wastes at Yucca Mountain in Nye County.

Over the objection of other state officials, Gov. Jim Gibbons approved a decision by the state water engineer to allow federal use of state water for U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) test drilling at the Yucca site.

Gibbons concurrently appointed a supporter of the dump to the Nevada Nuclear Projects Commission.

Under the terms of a court-approved agreement, DOE is permitted to use state water only for flushing toilets, fire suppression and dust control. But the state says its water is being used in the drilling process to cool drill bits and for other purposes.

State Engineer Tracy Taylor issued a cease-and-desist order against DOE but also allowed the agency to continue the practice for a month, a decision Gibbons endorsed.

The water decision was glossed over in a news release issued by the governor’s press office. That release began, “An outspoken critic of the use of Yucca Mountain as a dump site for the nation’s nuclear waste, Governor Jim Gibbons today announced his support of the state water engineer’s decision to ask the U.S. Department of Energy to suspend their unauthorized use of Nevada water for drilling at Yucca Mountain.”

The release contained a statement quoting Gibbons himself: “The DOE’s continued mismanagement and lack of quality control measures at the high-risk Yucca Mountain project has earned a zero confidence grade in the minds of Nevadans. The unauthorized use of water for drilling is further evidence that the DOE continues to rush it to completion regardless of Nevada’s rights and concerns.”

Like a term paper whose author is uncertain of its merits and binds it in a fancy cover, the release had the Gibbons quote in boldface and italics. Nowhere in the release was it reported that Gibbons had overridden advice from the state attorney general and other officials to personally allow the water use.

The Gibbons news release was initially successful in spinning the story his way. One media entity, KRNV News in Reno, even posted the release on its Web site as a news story, word for word and without attribution to the governor’s press office. MSNBC then picked it up off KRNV’s site and posted it as a national “news story.”

That success held until the news reached D.C.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic floor leader in the Senate, issued a statement.

“I’m incredibly disappointed,” he said. “This is the biggest gift the DOE has received since I’ve been in Washington, and I’m shocked that it was delivered by the administration of a former Nevada congressman. The letter from the State’s Division of Water Resources to the DOE lays out every reason the DOE should cease and desist. Yet, at the same time, the State gave the DOE the green light to move forward on this project, while the entire Nevada congressional delegation continues to fight to prevent Nevada from becoming the nation’s nuclear dumping ground.”

Two days later, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley of Clark County joined in.

“Denying the Department of Energy access to water for work at Yucca Mountain is one of the strongest weapons Nevada has in its fight to prevent our state from becoming a nuclear garbage dump,” she said. “I urge Governor Gibbons to reconsider allowing DOE to tap Nevada water resources so work at Yucca Mountain can continue, even if only for a limited time. The Energy Department should not be able to use one single drop of Nevada water to further President Bush’s goal of dumping toxic nuclear waste 90 minutes outside Las Vegas.”

The use of water for drilling purposes at Yucca Mountain is a sensitive subject with a history extending back four governorships. Gov. Richard Bryan’s administration resisted federal use of state water during the 1980s, a stance continued under governors Robert Miller and Kenny Guinn.

Gibbons’ replacement of state nuclear projects commissioner Michon Mackedon of Churchill County with Nye County Commissioner Joni Eastley also drew fire. Mackedon was noted for bringing wide knowledge of the historical behavior of DOE and its predecessor agencies—particularly the Atomic Energy Commission—to the Nevada Nuclear Projects Commission’s deliberations, and she was also considered an opponent of the Yucca dump.

Eastley is a supporter of dumping at Yucca. On Dec. 29, 2003, she and Nye/Esmeralda Economic Development Authority member Trish Rippie toured Northern Nevada touting the supposed benefits of the dump. In an appearance on Nevada Newsmakers, they said Nye County, by dropping “aggressive neutrality” toward the dump, was able to receive large sums of money ("Nye comes calling,” Jan. 15, 2004). Critics said the county was entitled to the money as a matter of law as funding for planning to deal with impacts from the Yucca project.

On another occasion, Eastley told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “The people in this community [Tonopah] are very patriotic, and they’re proud of the fact that they had something to do with developing the storage facility for this waste.”

As criticism of Gibbons grew as a result of the water decision and the Eastley appointment, he dumped Eastley.

“This position on the Nuclear Project Commission requires a representative who shares the primary sentiment of Nevada’s residents and my administration’s views on the Yucca Mountain Project,” Gibbons said in a prepared statement.

He also said he specifically wants someone on the commission who hails from Nye County.

“It is my intention to have representation from Nye County and to ensure that this person can work with commission on our ongoing efforts to defeat the Yucca Mountain Project.”

That in itself is of concern to Yucca opponents because Nye County has always been considered a weak link that federal officials like to use to undercut the overall state stance. In 1987, after Nye officials had begun playing footsie with federal energy officials on the dump, the Nevada Legislature carved a new county out around Yucca Mountain, removing the dumpsite from Nye County. The sponsor of “Bullfrog County,” Assemblymember Paul May, said his specific intent was to punish Nye County officials by denying them the federal benefits that will eventually accrue to the host county of the dump. The new county was later abolished by the courts.

If there was positive Yucca news for Gibbons in the dispute, it was that Nevada’s three Republican congressmembers—John Ensign, Dean Heller and Jon Porter—held their fire after he allowed the water use. But an aide to one of them said they were puzzled by Gibbons’ handling of the issue, particularly at a time when Porter and Heller were joined by Berkley to try to cut $200 million from the Yucca budget.