July 23, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Nearly 50 people crowded a hotel conference room in La Grande Tuesday night to voice their objections to a plan to move tons of nuclear waste through Union County to Hanford.

Nobody who spoke during the two-hour public hearing supported a U.S. Department of Energy plan to move low-level and transuranic nuclear waste to the nuclear reservation on the banks of the Columbia River. Most expressed worries about the impact on human and environmental health and the danger of shipping nuclear waste through Ladd Canyon and over Cabbage Hill.

One who testified, Ruth Davenport, broke down in tears and could not complete her statement as she spoke about her fears for the health of people and animals; the plight of endangered species — and the danger to the Columbia River.

"What's the impact?" she asked. "What will happen to us?"

Opposition, too, came from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden in a written statement read by Wayne Kinney, Wyden's Northeast Oregon staff member.

"I am opposed to trucking in additional waste to Hanford," Wyden wrote. "Hanford is generally considered the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere."

Wyden called moving nuclear waste from one site to another a "shell game."

"It shifts the problem from one place to another," and he said that Oregon has been more affected than any other state by a nuclear production plant in an adjacent state.

"Hazardous materials have seeped into the river," he wrote. "The health of many Oregonians has been affected."

Wyden was the only elected official to testify, but Jim Brown of the Union County office of the Oregon Department of Transportation was one of several to testify about the hazardous road conditions from Ontario to Portland during the winter. Brown said he is worried about the danger of accidents on Interstate 84, and he said that DOE has not provided his office with a procedure for handling incidents.

"We have multiple freeway closures in the winter," Brown said. "I don't want these shipments on our highways. Can these guys chain up to go through Cabbage (Hill)? My guys are out there every day, and I don't want them responsible for these loads."

Mike Collins of the Richland office of DOE did not answer questions such as Brown's, but he said the federal agency will provide written answers at some time in the future.

Whether Tuesday's testimony against shipping waste to Hanford will have any effect on the DOE decision remains questionable, because Hanford was designated in the late 1990s as "available" to accept and dispose of low-level waste from "all DOE generators."

No new high-level waste, such as spent nuclear fuel or liquid waste in tanks, is scheduled to be moved to Hanford. Some high-level waste will be shipped from Hanford to the sites in Nevada and New Mexico.

The amount of waste that may go to Hanford could fill a football field, 60x300-feet to a depth of 147 feet.

The transportation issue is not addressed in the current draft Environmental Impact Statement but was addressed in the earlier, already approved, document. Collins said the two documents will be combined before the final Environmental Impact Statement is complete.

George Sanders, a DOE manager at Hanford, told the crowd that the people who testified are not wasting their time.

"Your testimony will affect the process," he said.

Several, including Shelley Cimon of the Hanford Advisory Board, criticized the draft EIS for failing to provide a risk analysis, as well as failing to give information about the amount of waste to be shipped over a specific amount of time. The DOE has said between 70,000 and 90,000 truckloads of waste will be shipped to Hanford, but it has not said how frequently shipments will arrive and it has not analyzed the annual risk.

In a paper prepared for the hearing, Cimon of La Grande pointed to 14 issues that are not addressed in the DOE document, including the "inadequacy of the assessment for endangered species; failure to include an alternative to end the use of unlined soil trenches for disposal, and failure to … consider the cumulative impact of all Hanford waste decisions."

"Long-term stewardship considerations are not evident," she wrote.

The Hanford Advisory Board has said that the draft document should be withdrawn and rewritten after further analysis.

Several accused the federal government of considering the cost of moving and storing nuclear waste more important than the risk to human health and the environment. Some asked which contractors will gain financially from the importation of waste to Hanford.

Sanford said, however, that the overall plan is designed to reduce the danger of nuclear waste, and the Environmental Impact Statement "fits the overall effort to clean up the site."

He said that the decisions are not "primarily driven by contractors."

The hearing gave residents an opportunity to comment on a draft Environmental Impact Statement that proposes to increase the amount of storage at Hanford and accept low-level and transuranic nuclear waste from other decommissioned nuclear weapons plants across the nation. Transuranic waste is dangerous to breathe. Most of the waste is in the form of clothing, supplies and other items that have been contaminated.

Written public comments are being accepted until Aug. 22. To comment, write Collins, U.S.D.O.E., P.O. Box 550, MSIN A6—38, Richland, WA 99352.

Several in the audience criticized the federal agency for failing to put a public notice in The Observer and relying on notices in the Pendleton and Portland newspapers. Mike Collins of the Richland office of DOE said he had "made a mistake."

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