Gibbons dumped on Nevada

In our March 23 story, “Public Notice,” we described how a federal agency, the Defense National Stockpile Center (DNSC), conducted a five-year process of selecting a site where it could dump thousands of tons of toxic mercury and how it kept important information from the public in Nevada as it looked at Hawthorne as a site.

Nevada has been down this road many times.

In the 1950s, Nevada became a site for atomic testing.

In the 1970s, the Carter administration tried to put a massive rail system for shuttling MX missiles around Nevada and Utah to keep enemies from knowing where they were at any given time.

Since the 1980s, Congress and various presidents have, without much success, been trying to put a dump for high-level nuclear wastes at Yucca Mountain in Nye County.

In the first case, state officials were lining up for the chance to host atom bomb explosions.

But by the time Jimmy Carter came calling, looking for a site for his missile racetrack, the bloom was off the rose, and the state had hung out a “No, thanks” sign to unpleasant projects.

In the years since, state officials have become expert in the nuances of doing business with the feds without stumbling over their feet. One of the things they learned was the danger of “sending a message.”

When the state decided to punish Nye County for encouraging federal dumping by carving out a new county—Bullfrog County—that included Yucca Mountain, it was a blunder. There were no people in the new county, so any federal impact funds associated with the Yucca project that normally would have gone to the county went instead to the state treasury. This enabled nuclear power lobbyists in Washington to claim that the state now wanted the dump because it had set up a mechanism for taking the money. The state had sent the wrong message.

Nevada university professors were discouraged from accepting Yucca-related contracts. Working with the feds might send the wrong message.

A year ago, the DNSC was trying to decide among a half-dozen candidate sites where it could dump all that mercury.

While DNSC was trying to decide whether to leave the mercury stockpile where it was or move it to a different state, congressmembers like Mark Souder of Indiana and Mike Ferguson of New Jersey made it plain that they wanted mercury stockpiles moved out of their states, and Robert Bennett of Utah said he didn’t want it in his state.

U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons of Nevada chose that moment in human history to put his name on a dubious “scientific” article that cherry-picked the existing science to reach the conclusion that the threat from mercury was overstated.

The article got very little attention in the mainstream media, but it was read in specialized circles. Seafood and mining publications took note, for instance. It’s highly unlikely that it was overlooked at the DNSC.

What kind of a message did Gibbons send by giving his blessing to mercury at the very moment when the feds were considering dumping tons of the stuff in his home state?