Environmental News Items: Hells Canyon Dam, Death Valley Mining, and More

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Friends of the Earth took an active interest in the outcome of the battle over the Hells Canyon dam, nuclear power, amendments to the Clean Air Act, and other environmental news.

The following environmental news items were excerpted from Not Man Apart, a newsletter published by Friends of the Earth.

Long Battle Over Hells Canyon Dam Ends in Victory!

Ever since 1946 utility companies have been drooling over the idea of producing hydroelectric power for the Northwest by damming the portion of the Snake River that runs through Hells Canyon, a project which would flood the gorge itself (the country’s deepest) and turn it into a reservoir. Conservationists, of course, have been fighting the plan tooth and nail for just as long. Now recent Congressional action appears to have (finally!) assured success for “our side.”

The House of Representatives has passed a bill to ban all dam construction anywhere on the free-flowing part of the Middle Snake River, and–better yet–to create a 670,000-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area along the region where the Snake separates Oregon from Idaho. The Senate had previously approved (by unanimous vote) a similar measure, so now all that remains is to have the two Houses iron out minor differences and send the result to the President for him to sign. Environmental battles do sometimes drag on (the Hells Canyon tussle lasted nearly twenty-nine years), but victories such as this one make all the effort more than worthwhile.

Death Valley Mining

Four months after Death Valley was made a national monument (in 1933), Congress passed a law that opened the area to mining. The measure was originally intended to preserve the romantic tradition of the “single-blanket jackass prospector,” but today that Old West institution has been replaced by ever-accelerating large-scale strip mining.

Tenneco Corporation’s first (and largest} open mine (called the “Boraxo Pit”) is now 3,000 feet long, 600 feet wide, 230 feet deep, and growing fast. The company plans to expand its operations fivefold in the next few years. Three talc-producing outfits have followed Tenneco’s dig-and-scrape lead, and now leave piles of white waste glittering against the dark–and formerly beautiful–background. In fact, there are more than 1,827 “digging” claims in Death Valley today, and over two hundred new ones are flied each year.

Nevertheless, the. operators involved know they’re fighting against the clock. Environmentalists are currently supporting legislation–introduced by Senator Lee Metcalf (of Montana), Congressman Morris Udall (of Arizona), and Congressman John Seiberling (of Ohio)–that would protect Death Valley and five other parks and monuments. In the meantime, however–while the lawmaking process drags on, with no guarantee of success–the corporate “biggies” are getting all they can, while they can. Crews are working around the clock. And Tenneco even took the offensive (and we do mean “offensive”) by asking the National Park Service to build overlooks by their pits so visitors could gaze at “modern mining.” Talk about chutzpah!

Farmers Fight Irrigation

Construction of South Dakota’s Oahe Diversion”–a massive “brainchild” of the Bureau of Reclamation that would involve building a dam, 1,000 miles of canals, and three reservoirs–is meeting concerted opposition from the very farmers the project is supposed to benefit.

The problems? Well, as the plan stands now, 120 miles of the James River would be channeled into a 54-mile irrigation ditch. The fanners say (and the Soil Conservation Society of America agrees) that the resulting extra water in the soil would dissolve ground salts, contaminate streams and subsurface springs, and–in the end–destroy plant life.

The Bureau claims it can solve the quandary with an elaborate system of drainage pipes, but neglects to mention that their “solution” would pollute the James River. There’s also a question of what would happen if the scheme didn’t work. A spokesman for the United Family Farmers recently stated that “Failure of the project’s drainage system .could convert areas of the Lake Plain (the region involved) to a salty marsh.”

Yes, and there are other pitfalls, too: The Bureau, for instance, has quoted three different sets of figures on the proposed spacing of its drainpipes in different reports; farmers are beginning to think the agency is juggling its numbers accordiug to the audience involved. Also, the project would eliminate 9,420 acres of waterfowl habitat, and–worse yet- area residents fear that the system would eventually result in the end of many small family farms. (History bears their suspicions out: Over the years, irrigated areas have consistently become centrally owned by a handful of people.)

At this point, family farmers have organized and refused to sell rights-of-way for canals, and they’re now trying hard to get a referendum on the issue. The battle could well be a long one.

Biggest Coal-Burner Delayed a Year

The proposed Kaiparowits project in Utah would be the biggest coal-burning power plant in the country. The facility would send at least 300 tons of pollutants a day into the air through 600-foot stacks, and would be located in the middle of the “Golden Circle” of six national parks, three national monuments, and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The power itself would go to Los Angeles and southern California, where utility companies apparently just can’t get enough.

Environmentalists are vehemently opposed, of course, and the fight has already produced a year’s delay in construction … and a regular brouhaha. The executive vice-president of Southern California Edison–a major backer of the project–has said that “until the various environmental issues and regulatory delays are resolved, and resultant cost increases are assessed, the (power plant’s) participants cannot prudently continue to make major expenditures to meet the present schedule.” (It had been estimated that construction spending in 1976 alone would amount to $80 million.)

Meanwhile, environmental groups held a big press conference at the project’s site in January. The presidents of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth were there to speak, but that meeting was invaded by townspeople shouting slogans and carrying placards (one example: “Sierra Club Stop Pollution: Sit On A Stack”).

Apparently the area’s residents want the jobs the project would produce despite the brown haze the plant would cast over most of the land, and regardless of the fact that the facility’s water consumption might well force a cutback on their own use of the commodity. So it looks as though we’re fighting the state of Utah, the utilities, and the townspeople themselves in order to prevent a monstrous coal-burner from spreading smog over the wilderness.

Shooting Wolves From Helicopters

Despite national media coverage and widespread protests, it looks as though the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game is going to go ahead with its plan for aerial wolf hunts on federal property. One government agency has withdrawn financial support in the face of public outcry, but hunters will still be able to prowl the land in helicopters and slaughter wolves with shotguns. (The “sportsmen” sometimes track the wolves by following signals from radio-transmission collars that were put on the animals in an earlier experiment!)

The hunts will continue for up to five years, and are designed to see what will happen to dwindling moose populations without the canine predators. Wolves will be completely exterminated in a 3,200-square-mile area east of Mount McKinley, but hunts in two other regions will only (only?) deplete the species.

Apparently Alaskan Fish and Game wants to see if it can do better at managing nature than Mother Nature herself. (Guess who allowed human hunters to deplete the moose in the first place?)

Nuclear News: The Controversial Atom

-Diablo Canyon Reactor Fault
The U.S. Geological Survey recently found a major fault zone only 2.5 miles away from California’s still-under-construction Diablo Canyon reactors. One of the two power plants is 96 percent completed, and is designed to withstand a 6.75 Richter-scale earthquake. But the fault–which is young (in geological time) and active–could slip enough to register 7.5. The problem is that the Diablo Canyon reactor would pretty much have to be rebuilt to make it more sound. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission may not issue an operating permit because of the new development. But then again, the NRC isn’t likely to overlook the utility companies’ investment of $985 million. It’s extremely likely, however, that if
the NRC does issue an operating permit, environmentalists will file lawsuits fast.

-Reactor Plans Abandoned
The General Manager of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District recently recommended to his Board of Directors that they forget their plans for building a second nuclear reactor (their first is in Clay Station, California). He said construction estimates had risen from $427 million two years ago to $660 million now, raw uranium ore costs have gone up from $17 a pound to $30 (and are still rising), there will soon be a shortage of fuel enrichment facilities, there are no operating reprocessing plants or programs for disposal of wastes, and average reactor efficiencies are falling way below marginal estimates.

The executive suggested buying into geothermal or hydroelectric power (and maybe even oil) instead. He also stated that he thinks the federal government ought to do something about establishing mandatory conservation measures. It seems that at least one utility district is beginning to see the nonnuclear-powered light!

-Nuclear Poll
Those misguided souls who still say that scientists alone should decide the future of nuclear power might be interested in the result of a recent poll–conducted by the Federation of American Scientists–which indicates that more and more of those experts are developing their own very serious doubts over the issue.

A questionnaire released by FAS (which is based in Washington, D.C., has 36 Nobel laureates on its Board of Sponsors, and lobbies for 6,500 scientist/members) listed five “what to do about nuclear power” choices, ranging from “increase the construction” to “proclaim a moratorium” and “phase out the plants.” Sixty-two percent of the respondents chose the latter two alternatives.

Clean Air Act Amendments

The House and Senate are now working on amendments to the Clean Air Act, and the lines of opposition are all too clearly drawn.

The subcommittees that originally studied the bills involved want to [1] prevent air that’s clean now from becoming dirty, [2] establish a mandatory penalty for any stationary sources of air pollution that don’t meet federal standards by 1979, and [3] require continuous emissions controls (instead of intermittent controls, which corporations can avoid by simply changing the timing of their pollutant releases).

Those are all reasonable goals, but industry and the administration are against the proposals. They want to weaken restrictions for air quality and have even gone so far as to resist regulations that would protect the air in our national parks and wilderness areas.

Anyone who’s been paying attention to the reports that city smog has been found more than 100 miles from any metropolitan area should be concerned about this issue. It’s a whopper. The right to breathe clean air is at stake!

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