Now, the rich tackle pollution

Jackson Hole's pricey battle against a nuclear-waste incinerator could be a call to arms for America's well-to-do.

To some, it seemed more like an old-fashioned religious revival than a town meeting.

In a packed orchestra hall here late last month, ski bums and service workers, members of the social elite and corporate power brokers joined hands - and opened wallets - to fight a proposed nuclear-waste incinerator on the other side of the Grand Teton mountains.

Within a matter of minutes, Gerry Spence, the local lawyer who represented Karen Silkwood, had roused the crowd into an emotional frenzy - and raised a half-million dollars to serve as a war chest against the facility.

For Jackson, Wyo., where a chasm separates rich and poor, the uncommon coming together offers perhaps a new chapter in the struggle of "downwinders" - people who find themselves in the same neighborhood as nuclear material.

Their decades-old struggle often has centered on "environmental justice," in which poor neighborhoods on the wrong side of the tracks lie near toxic smokestacks or have contaminated barrels buried in their backyards. But here in one of America's most affluent and politically connected communities, many observers see what could be the beginning of heightened grass-roots activism among the well-to-do.

When citizens take on government, "usually they cannot win because they lack the resources," says Mr. Spence, known for wearing frilly buckskin jackets in court. "This is one situation where there is enough money around so that the people have a fighting chance."

The uproar began in June after citizens learned that Idaho was closing a public comment period on the nuclear incinerator. Few people in Wyoming were aware that there had even been one, says Berte Hirschfield with Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free.

Together with a few friends, Mrs. Hirschfield, the wife of a former Hollywood studio executive, asked Idaho officials to extend the comment period. Idaho refused, she says, contending that it didn't have to involve citizens beyond the state boundaries - even though air currents respect no border.

Harrison Ford chips in

Later, Mr. Spence agreed to become involved with the case, and box-office star Harrison Ford, who owns a ranch here, pledged $50,000. A dozen business executives connected with Fortune 500 companies followed suit.

At last month's rally in the concert hall where the Grand Teton Symphony normally performs, the same people who clean the homes of the rich and famous also contributed parts of their meager paychecks.

The outpouring of money impressed even Arjun Makhijani, an expert on the problems of storing nuclear waste and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md.

"I have never been to a public meeting in which a community raised half a million dollars on the spot," Mr. Makhijani says. "It was quite something to witness. Front-running presidential candidates would be hard-pressed to duplicate what happened in that room."

One reason for concern among many citizens here is that the site for the new facility - the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) - has had pollution problems in the past.

Radioactive waste stored underground has leaked into the aquifer on the Snake River plain. Now, to clean it up, the US Department of Energy - which oversees INEEL - wants to have an incinerator built to burn off toxic material in the waste. But Spence notes that a half dozen filter failures have occurred at another INEEL incinerator.

Moreover, critics complain, the Department of Energy (DOE) has signed a contract with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. to build and run the facility. In the words of activist Marv Hoyt, British Nuclear Fuels has "a bad track record for safety."

"They are here to turn this into a for-profit venture and foremost to make money for their stockholders, not to hold public safety up as their top priority," says Mr. Hoyt of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group.

Corporate officials have said on numerous occasions that they will be responsible managers, despite intense scrutiny of the company in the United Kingdom.

Although proposals to burn waste in Colorado and New Mexico were stopped by outcries over alleged risks to public health, the DOE maintains that the process is safe.

"We don't dismiss people's concerns," says Brad Bugger, spokesman for the Department of Energy. "But let's put it in perspective. Because of nuclear testing and fallout around the world, there is plutonium in the atmosphere.... You are exposed to more [natural] radioactivity on a flight from New York to Los Angeles."

Jackson Hole unconvinced

Yet that assessment provides no solace to citizens in Jackson Hole, who say a history of secrecy in the DOE makes its promises suspect. Spence, whose evidence in the Silkwood case focused on the cover-up of information related to radioactive exposure and contamination of citizens, is not impressed.

"The issue is not about an objection to nuclear-waste disposal, because it has to be gotten rid of," he says. "What is objectionable is that the government itself admits a higher risk of death ... by burning nuclear waste as opposed to other methods of waste disposal."

For Chuck Broscious, who has tracked INEEL for 15 years as director the Environmental Defense Institute in Troy, Idaho, Jackson's stand could become an important national touchstone. He says it could bring other affluent communities - which often are removed from controversies like this - into taking a fresh view of the ubiquitous problem of nuclear waste.

"Idaho is a relatively poor state, like most other downwinder states, but the DOE never expected that standing behind Idaho were the millionaires and billionaires of Jackson Hole," says Mr. Broscious. "They have elevated the debate to a whole different level."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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