Eight years ago, the Washington Department of Transportation put a huge price tag on a plan to haul uranium waste through Spokane to Ford.
But recently, DOT substantially lowered its cost estimates - prompting demands for a new study at a public meeting Wednesday night in Spokane.
Dawn Mining Co. wants to import up to 30 million cubic feet of mildly radioactive rubble from the East Coast to fill a gaping pit at its defunct uranium mill near Ford.
It could cost up to $50 million to fix safety hazards and harden the road surface on Highway 231 from Reardan to Ford to accommodate the project, DOT estimated in 1989.
But in public meetings this week, that figure was revised dramatically downward - to $4.2 million or less for hardening the road, and next to nothing for safety improvements.
DOT recently concluded the Dawn long haul would have “no significant impacts ” on safety on Highway 231, said Jerry Lenzi, DOT’s regional administrator, at the Spokane meeting.
But the project will cause “accelerated wear” on the twisting, two-lane rural highway, Lenzi said.
DOT’s safety analysis is vague and weak, said Laura Ackerman of the Washington Environmental Council, the state’s largest environmental coalition.
“This study needs to be redone,” Ackerman said.
According to Dawn estimates, up to 38 trucks a day, each weighing 68,500 pounds, would travel the road 260 days a year for five to seven years.
The state might deal with the surface wear problem by restricting use of the road in the spring to all heavy vehicles, Lenzi said.
Those restrictions could make it impossible for Dawn to finish the proposed waste hauling by a 2019 federal closure deadline for the mill site, said Gary Robertson of the Washington Department of Health.
“Unless Dawn can come up with an alternative, they need to pay the $4.2 million” to harden the road, Robertson said.
Dawn will reply to the Department of Health within 30 days about the road damage issue, said David Delcour, Dawn executive vice president.
“If the idea is to lower weight restrictions on the highway simply to obstruct us, it would be inconvenient to lots of others,” Delcour said.
The DOT’s recent safety assessment got a hostile reaction from a vocal crowd of about 40 project opponents.
They said the heavy trucks would pose a hazard to school buses on Highway 231, which winds through a deep canyon and has inadequate shoulders and guard rails.
The road has claimed the lives of many young people from the Spokane Tribe, the critics said.
“From what we’ve heard today, the impacts are now next to zero. That’s far from what we started with,” said Owen Berio of Springdale, Wash., a leader in the environmental group Dawn Watch.
The group recently threatened legal action against DOT for not responding to a June 30 public records request for the data that went into the safety report.
DOT sent the data to Dawn Watch earlier this week, Lenzi said.
Eastern Washington shouldn’t be accepting more nuclear waste when it already has to deal with major problems at Hanford, the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, said Steve Bradburn of Spokane.
“I’m appalled this is happening. Dawn goes bankrupt and its parent company says it’s not responsible for the mess they made. So we have to pay?” Bradburn asked.
Dawn, a subsidiary of Newmont Mining Co. of Denver, still has no private or federal contracts to import waste to Washington state, but expects to obtain some soon, Delcour said.
The meetings on Dawn’s transportation plan continue Monday in Wellpinit and Reardan. A 30-day comment period closes on Oct. 25.
Comments can be sent to the Department of Health, Division of Radiation Protection, P.O. Box 47827, Olympia WA 989504-7827.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map of area.