3 governors ask action on arms plant problems. State, local officials press Congress for new safety, environmental laws

The governors of Washington, Ohio, and Idaho have had it with the federal government's inability to clean up the nation's nuclear weapons plants. So Booth Gardner, Richard Celeste, and Cecil Andrus have sent a letter to 10 fellow governors. The message: Only together can we spur the feds to action.

The weapons facilities, until now, have operated under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Energy (DOE) with little oversight by state environmental or public health authorities.

``The cleanup and disposal of these wastes have been deferred for too long,'' the letter states. ``As governors of the states hosting key USDOE weapons production and research facilities, we are in the position to take a leadership role on this issue.''

Energy Secretary John Herrington has notified the White House that there is not enough money in the administration's 1990 budget to operate weapons facilities and satisfy safety and environmental concerns associated with them, the Washington Post reported yesterday. According to the report, Mr. Herrington wrote to White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein: ``I must in good conscience advise you that ... the system will, in all likelihood, be operating beyond the bounds of acceptable risk.''

Mr. Duberstein, however, disagreed, telling NBC's ``Meet the Press'' yesterday that there will be enough money to safely operate the facilities. He said the needed money had been found in the Energy Department budget.

Legislation to make DOE more accountable for the safety and environmental consequences of the activities at its plants has percolated for several years among congressmen and senators from Ohio and Washington - states that host two of the largest and most controversial plants. The proposals would make DOE facilities subject to the same environmental regulations as commercial operations - including nuclear, hazardous-waste, and worker-safety rules. So far Congress has failed to pass the legislation.

But now the push for legislation is getting an extra nudge - from a growing network of governors and local officials in those and other states who are impatient with the slow progress in Congress.

``We see this next session of Congress as crucial,'' says Jeff Breckel, an aide to Governor Gardner.

The letter from the governors is but one effort to build a coalition of officials in states affected by DOE facilities in order to lobby harder for congressional legislation.

``It's a very calculated effort to make sure we pull in all the affected parties,'' says Rebecca Blood, an aide to Governor Celeste. ``We're trying to determine what the common ground is.''

Congressional observers say one of the reasons that Congress has failed to take decisive action is that the problems facing states with DOE facilities vary greatly. While all states prize the jobs that federal facilities provide, the environmental and worker safety concerns at some weapons plants are not as serious as at others. And the dependence of local economies on DOE facilities may determine the extent to which community leaders and congressional representatives pursue DOE cleanup and reform legislation.

``In the local community, the emphasis is on jobs,'' says Dave Berrick, an aide to Sen. Brock Adams (D) of Washington, ``but once you get farther away, there's more concern about safety and the environment.''

Others point out that concerns about national security may prompt some lawmakers to withhold support from legislation that could delay or complicate weapons production.

In addition to the organizing at the gubernatorial level, local officials are joining the chorus calling for congressional action on DOE sites. The National Conference of State Legislatures and the National League of Cities have recently approved policies calling for state authority to enforce cleanup actions at federal facilities.

Though the actions of such professional associations are largely symbolic, they do have at least one practical effect. With a ratified policy, the organizations' lobbyists are free to broach the issue with lawmakers.

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