Gov. Phil Batt went to the hotbed of nuclear waste opposition on Wednesday to defend his deal with the federal government and emerged free of the expected hostile challenges to the agreement that permitted radioactive dumping to resume in Idaho.
During 50 minutes before the Twin Falls Rotary Club, Batt laid out the history and the circumstances that convinced him his deal was in the best interest of the state and then fielded questions that only rarely even hinted at criticism of the deal.
“I was surprised,” one Rotarian said, “but he did a good job.”
Only three waste protesters marched on the sidewalk outside the restaurant where more than 200 local civic leaders stood and applauded the governor when he finished speaking.
“I thought I’d have some questions from some real hostile people, and there were none,” Batt said as he left the session.
“I was surprised by that, but that’s the thing about this,” he said. “It’s complicated, and the people don’t understand it. But when you get a chance to explain it and talk it over, they think it was the best thing to do.”
His reception in Twin Falls, where waste storage at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory has always engendered anger because of the upstream threat to the water supply, underscored the generally muted public reaction since Oct. 16 when he signed the deal. It permits 1,133 more shipments of nuclear waste to be dumped at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in return for promises that existing waste finally be cleaned up and nearly all waste removed from Idaho by 2035.
Within an hour of his appearance in the Magic Valley, a crowd estimated by Boise Police at 250 rallied on the steps of the state Capitol against the nuclear waste agreement, contending it seriously threatens Idaho’s environment because the waste is being stored over the Snake River aquifer and an earthquake zone.
Many of the protesters were from the Magic Valley, and leaders such as activist Bill Chisholm said that explained the lack of protest during Batt’s appearance in Twin Falls.
“We’re not focusing on Batt,” Chisholm said. “He’s just part of the team. This is really about a void in political power. Because we signed this deal, Idaho really doesn’t have an effective voice in government on this particular issue.”
Leaders urged people to sign the petition for Batt’s recall, and protesters scrawled “You’re Killin’ Me” with chalk in his parking space. Batt did not go back to the Capitol after returning from Twin Falls.
Batt told the Rotarians how he reached the conclusion that cutting a deal with the federal government that could protect Idaho from becoming the dump for even more waste while requiring that waste now at INEL finally be moved from storage over the aquifer to another location at INEL was a good choice.
In fact, he reportedly told the editorial board of The Times-News just before his address that he would have quit if had not been able to negotiate the kind of deal he did.
“It’s a victory for Idaho, it’s a victory for the state to control it’s own destiny, it’s a victory for those concerned about the aquifer,” Batt said.
He conceded to one questioner that there was no guarantee the sanctions against the government for violating provisions of the agreement would work. But Batt maintained the fact that the deal will be enforced by a federal judge would induce the government to comply.
“I don’t intend to sit idly by and let this thing enforce itself,” he said.
The governor also contended the fact that other states want agreements similar to the one he negotiated and are being told to forget it by the Clinton administration proves it was the right thing to do.