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Senate notes its objection to Strake

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A joint legislative resolution opposing the planned Divine Strake explosion passed the Utah Senate Wednesday.

Additional information:
» Sen. Orrin Hatch's statement » Rep. Jim Matheson's statement

Meanwhile, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, released statements opposing the test, in which the Defense Threat Reduction Agency would detonate 700 tons of tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil at the Nevada Test Site, about 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

During debate Wednesday at the state Legislature, a senator raised doubt about the danger of the test. But others cited concern about the blast stirring up soil at the site that remains contaminated with debris of atomic-bomb tests in the 1950s and '60s.

"As I understand it, I don't think there's supposed to be any airborne plume out of this," said Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City.

Minority Whip Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, principal sponsor of SCR5, said the resolution is "probably the most important thing we can do." He cited fears that contaminated dust "is going to recirculate into the atmosphere" and that the radioactive particles could harm downwind residents.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, objected to the way the bill went straight to final vote without a committee hearing so the public could comment.

Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, said this is a sensitive topic for people from southern Utah. "There are a lot of unknowns in this issue," he said. "But we have had in our recent history a lot of unknowns when they (federal officials) were doing testing in Nevada, and we were assured that, and many times during that period, that these were very safe above-ground tests."

Despite those assurances, "we find out later that no, that is not the case, that we were misled as to the safety of those tests at that time. And as a result, a lot of our folks have had some very serious illnesses," he said.

Sen. Dennis Stowell, R-Parowan, said that even though people would not have a chance to comment in a committee meeting, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. held a public hearing on the issue 10 days ago. About 300 people in attendance were "very much opposed to this" explosion, he said.

The resolution passed 26-3 with Jenkins, Stephenson and Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, voting against it.

Meanwhile, Hatch on Wednesday released a report from University of Utah chemist Charles A. Wright, who concluded that data in federal documents "provide sufficient evidence for a Finding of No Significant Impact for the proposed Divine Strake experiment."

Fallout danger to the public is negligible, according to Wright's analysis.

Other experts strongly disagree. During the Jan. 24 hearing sponsored by Huntsman, Dr. Zell McGee said the half-life of certain radioactive material released in atomic bomb tests at the test site is many thousands of years. He said particles of fallout material like Neptunium-237 causes cancer, and these could be lifted by the Divine Strake blast.

Hatch said that despite Wright's analysis, he agrees with many of his constituents "that being presented with information and conclusions is no longer sufficient; independent analysis and research is now required." He called for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to find another spot for the test.

Matheson said in a written statement that the agency "has been largely the cause of a great deal of anxiety and confusion throughout the western United States and primarily Utah."

Given the government's "past record of dismissing health and safety risks" despite scientific data, Matheson wrote, "it will take a more rigorous environmental review to assure me and many Utahns that there's nothing to fear from this test."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com