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A new turn for Skull Valley Road

Skull Valley Road in Tooele County, the only paved road leading to the Goshute Indian Reservation and the proposed site of a temporary storage facility for spent nuclear-fuel rods, is on its way to becoming a state road.

Again.A House committee voted unanimously Thursday morning to reverse a decision it made two weeks ago when it removed the 26-mile road from a previously noncontroversial Senate bill that gave the state control and management responsibilities for certain roads.

Members of the House Transportation Committee told Gov. Mike Leavitt and others who testified Thursday that they didn't have enough information earlier this month to vote in favor of turning Skull Valley Road over to the state.

But after more than an hour of conversation with Leavitt, Tooele County and state transportation officials, area residents and Goshute representatives, the committee voted 10-0 to add the road back into the bill and send it on to the full House for its consideration. The bill had passed the Senate with minimal debate.

Leavitt, committee members and others argued that by taking control of the road away from Tooele County, the state is in a better position to fight a consortium of utility companies that wants to store nuclear-reactor waste on a temporary basis in the west desert just 40 miles from Salt Lake City.

If the state ultimately can't prevent the high-level radioactive waste from coming here, Leavitt said, state control over the road would give Utah greater ability to manage the transportation and handling of the material.

"The issue here is whether or not the state of Utah desires to have high-level nuclear waste stored 40 miles from its central population center," testified Leavitt, who rarely makes appearances in legislative committee hearings. "This is waste that is lethally hot for 10,000 years.

"As we have developed our policy of resisting these utility companies sending this waste to Utah . . . The road becomes a very important part of our ability to control or resist the shipment of this waste."

Another more comprehensive bill dealing with state regulation of nuclear waste was to be debated in a Senate committee later Thursday. A resolution opposing the storage of spent nuclear rods also has circulated through the Legislature.

All the fuss could be unnecessary. The ultimate decision about whether to allow the temporary storage of nuclear-reactor waste in Utah is up to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a process that has barely begun and could take several years.

State environmental officials say the existence of fault lines under or near the proposed site could ultimately cause the NRC to turn down the application of Private Fuel Storage, the utility consortium. A state geological survey completed last fall showed that the area may have experienced major earthquakes in the distant past.

But Diane Nielson, executive director of the Department of Environmental Quality, said before Thursday's hearing that more work needs to be done before the state can present any concrete information to the NRC about fault lines and earthquake potential. She said the state has informed the NRC that geological concerns will be one of its arguments if the NRC hears full debate on the proposal.

Thursday's committee debate was the culmination of action the governor took last summer. He became concerned that a deal among Private Fuel Storage, the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians and Tooele County was imminent, and asked the state Transportation Commission to give the state control over the road. Tooele County officials objected, more over a concern that the road might not be maintained properly than anything else, and some House committee members said two weeks ago they felt Tooele residents' opinions had not been properly heard in a public setting.

That was the point of Thursday's rehearing - to give everyone a chance to comment.

Leon Bear, chief of the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes, accused the state and governor of discriminating against tribal members and of thwarting their attempts to become economically self-sufficient.

Attorney Duncan Steadman, however, told the committee he represents tribal members who do not want the storage facility.

Steve Barrowes, a Salt Lake resident who presented himself as a physicist with a doctorate who has worked in nuclear radiation detection, said he objected to state control of the road if the intent is to block the storage facility. He, along with Holladay resident and engineer Bill Peterson, encouraged lawmakers to allow spent rods into the state to take advantage of the economic opportunities. Millions, if not billions of dollars, could be made, they said.

Tooele County Commissioner Teryl Hunsaker said he really didn't care who controlled the road as long as snow was removed promptly and the road was maintained. He said the state failed to remove snow from the road recently and a propane tanker overturned as a result.

David Allen, representing nearby landowners, said the state should control the road because the issue of nuclear waste storage affects all Utahns, not just those in Tooele County.