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N-storage fight shifts to court

Goshutes sue, say laws that target plan violate Constitution

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The fight over a plan to store 40,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste on the Skull Valley Goshute reservation has landed in federal court.

The Skull Valley Goshutes and Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of nuclear power companies, filed suit Thursday against several state officials, including Gov. Mike Leavitt, alleging six Utah laws — designed to derail the nuclear storage plan — violate the U.S. Constitution.

The suit says the half-dozen laws illegally restrict interstate commerce, violate tribal sovereignty and undermine federal laws regulating the storage of nuclear waste.

"These laws go well beyond the rights of states to pass laws . . . . When laws like this are passed they have to be challenged," PFS chairman John Parkyn said after the suit was filed in U.S. District Court.

State officials expressed confidence the laws will hold up in court. "These (legal) issues were studied at the time these laws were being considered and we feel that they are capable of being defended," assistant attorney general Phil Pugsley said.

The most controversial among the challenged laws is one the Legislature passed this year banning high-level nuclear waste from entering the state. It also requires PFS to pay the state about $150 billion cash up front; imposes a 75 percent tax on anyone providing services to the project; and bars Tooele County from providing municipal-type services such as police and fire to the site about 70 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

Thursday's suit was expected. Also in its most recent session, the Legislature established a $1.1 million legal defense fund to fight potential legal challenges from the Goshutes and PFS.

"From my perspective the lawsuit still leaves unanswered the most critical question, which is that this won't be a temporary storage facility," said Utah Department of Environmental Quality executive director Dianne Nielson, who was named as a defendant in the suit along with Leavitt, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, and several transportation officials.

The PFS and Goshute plan is to store the rods in Skull Valley, either for 25 or 50 years. However, state officials believe once the waste arrives it will remain in Skull Valley forever.

"If we have to meet them in court, that's what we'll do," Leavitt said in a statement issued from Cedar City. "We do not want high-level nuclear waste in Utah. This shows that they are insistent about moving the material from someone else's backyard to ours. We will continue to fight that, using every legal, environmental, legislative and political tool available to ban nuclear fuel rods from this state."

The suit comes as PFS is scrambling to secure licensing for the Goshute site. The power companies are faced with shutting down dozens of power plants unless they find a temporary nuclear waste storage facility for tons of spent nuclear fuel. A permanent high-level nuclear waste dump, in Yucca Mountain, Nev., is still years in the works and most power plants have used up all their on-site storage.

If all goes as planned and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants the Goshutes and PFS a license to store the wastes, construction could begin by April 2002, Parkyn said. The Skull Valley facility would cover 820 acres, most of which would be covered by rows of some 4,000 stainless steel canisters, each 18 feet tall, enclosing spent nuclear fuel rods transported to the site by rail from plants nationwide.

The facility would be a boon to desolate Skull Valley as Goshutes would be given preference in construction jobs as well as have first crack at 43 full-time jobs at the site, tribal chairman Leon Bear said.

It's just the kind of economic development, Bear said, that will draw tribal members — most of whom now live in Grantsville, Tooele and Salt Lake City — back to the reservation. And the financial windfall, he said, will help create the infrastructure that will provide more than jobs.

"We're ready to get paid," Bear said.

The Goshutes, Bear said, would be willing to end their nuclear-waste storage push if the state could come up with a equally lucrative economic plan for the barren valley.


E-MAIL: bsnyder@desnews.coms