My weekly column in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune.
Thirty years ago this month then-Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus willfully and with malice aforethought sparked one of the most consequential confrontations of the nuclear age. The Idaho governor, a rangy, bald-headed one-time lumberjack from Orofino, took on the federal government in a way few, if any, Idaho politicians ever had before, or has since.
I have many vivid memories of working for Andrus those long years ago, but no memory remains more evocative than when the governor of Idaho called the bluff of the Department of Energy over nuclear waste. We are still feeling the ripples of that encounter and Idaho, thanks to dozens of subsequent actions, including a landmark agreement negotiated by Andrus’s successor Phil Batt, has gotten rid of a good part of its nuclear waste stockpile. If current state leaders are half as smart as Andrus and Batt they will fight to retain the leverage Idaho has to get rid of the rest.
On a crisp fall day in 1988 Andrus and I flew to Carlsbad, New Mexico, a town in the southeastern corner of the state at the time better known for its caverns than for its starring role in a governmental showdown. Carlsbad was once the potash capitol of the country and had long been a place where extracting value from the earth dominated the economy. When potash ceased to be an economic driver for the region the powers to be in Eddy County went looking for a future. They found some level of economic salvation in nuclear waste. Andrus was there to help realize their expectations and in the process help Idaho.
Years earlier, as Secretary of the Interior, Andrus had become a Carlsbad favorite for his attention to local issues – Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the domain of the Interior Department is nearby – and because of the respect he enjoyed the locals made him an honorary member of the Eddy County Sheriff’s Posse. As a member of the august group Andrus was able to sport the outfit’s signature Stetson, a big hat hard to miss in a crowd. The Stetson was a scintillating shade of turquoise.
Wearing his colorful headgear, Andrus arrived in Carlsbad thirty years ago to “tour” the then-unfinished Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a massive cavern carved out of the deep salt formations under southeastern New Mexico. Years earlier the Department of Energy (DOE), then as now the single most incompetent bureaucracy in the federal government, had determined that the salt formations would be the ideal place to permanently dispose of certain types of extremely long-lived radioactive waste. Encased thousands of feet below ground in salt that had existed for hundreds if not millions of years and never touched by water, the waste would be safe. The science was sound even if DOE’s execution of a plan to prepare the facility for waste was deeply flawed.
Andrus’s WIPP inspection left him convinced that the only way to move DOE’s bureaucracy was to manufacture a crisis. His motive, of course, was to shine a light on DOE management failures, but also advancing the day when nuclear waste that had been sitting in Idaho for years would be permanently removed to New Mexico. He returned to Idaho and closed the state’s borders to any more waste, declaring, “I’m not in the garbage business any more.”
I remember asking Andrus if he really had the legal authority to take an action that seemed sure to end up in court. He smiled and said, “ I may not have the legal authority, but I have the moral authority. Let them try to stop me.”
The audacious action had precisely the effect Idaho’s governor intended. The nation’s decades of failures managing its massive stockpile of nuclear waste became, at least for a while, a national issue. The New York Times printed a photo of an Idaho state trooper standing guard over a rail car of waste on a siding near Blackfoot. DOE blinked and eventually took that shipment back to Colorado.
A now retired senior DOE official recently told me Andrus’s action was the catalyst to get the New Mexico facility operational. His gutsy leadership also highlighted the political reality that Idaho’s rebellion against the feds might easily spread. Subsequent litigation, various agreements and better DOE focus, at least temporarily, lead to the opening of the WIPP site in 1999 and some of the waste stored in Idaho began moving south.
With the perfect hindsight of thirty years it is also clear that Idaho’s willingness to take on the federal government did not, as many of the state’s Republicans claimed at the time, hurt the Idaho National Laboratory. Republican Governor Phil Batt’s 1995 agreement, which Andrus zealously defended up until his death last year, continues to provide Idaho with the best roadmap any state has for cleaning up and properly disposing of waste. Idaho would be foolish to squander any of the leverage it has thanks to the work Andrus and Batt did to hold the federal government accountable.
But, of course, some Idahoans continue to talk about waste accommodation with DOE, even as deadlines for more removal and clean up are missed and the DOE behemoth stumbles forward. A former Texas governor who once advocated eliminating the agency now heads DOE. As Michael Lewis demonstrates in his scary new book The Fifth Risk, DOE Secretary Rick Perry is little more than a figurehead acting out a role that is both “ceremonial and bizarre.” According to Lewis’s telling, Perry didn’t even bother to ask for a briefing on any DOE program when he arrived.
Meanwhile Perry’s boss recently announced in Nevada, a state where waste is about as popular as a busted flush, that he’s opposed to eventually opening the Yucca Mountain site as a permanent repository for very high-level nuclear waste. Donald Trump made that statement even as his own budget contains millions of our dollars to work on opening the very facility.
Federal government incoherence obviously continues. Cece Andrus confronted it thirty years ago. He was right then and we can still learn from his leadership.