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Environment

Unhappy campers
Sure, every job has its complainers. But listen to what a few rangers and other employees of the National Park Service and the Interior Department said during a recent independent survey.

“I have been with NPS for more than 25 years,” wrote one. “Sadly, over the last two years, I have seen a once-proud agency being driven into the ground by an administration that has contempt of our work, our ethic and our pride as Park Service staff.”

Wrote another: “The privatization initiative has hurt more than any other misguided effort from Washington that I’ve seen in my 15 years with NPS.”

A third complained about “a strong sense that the director and other leadership of the NPS have their own agenda, which does not coincide with the mission of the NPS. The leaders don’t know what they’re doing (akin to having prisoners run our nuclear power plants).”

These responses—and hundreds of others—suggest that morale is sinking among the men and women who work as stewards to America’s public lands. Much of the criticism stems from a push from the Bush administration to privatize park services with scant evidence that the effort will save taxpayer dollars or provide better protection for wilderness areas.

In the survey, sponsored by the Campaign to Protect America’s Lands, 79 percent of the respondents said employee morale is on the downturn. Nearly three-fourths said they had a great deal of concern about “special-interest influence on park policies/decisions,” while a staggering 88 percent said there was an increasing trend of “decisions influenced by politics rather than professional experience/science.” And 84 percent said they had a “great deal of concern” about their ability to protect park resources under the Bush administration.

“The tens of thousands of American men and women who have dedicated their lives to the protection and non-partisan management of the national parks by serving in the National Park Service are saddened and incensed by recent actions taken by the Bush administration to undermine the laws intended to safeguard our parks and wilderness areas,” said David Haskell, former science center director for Grand Canyon National Park, in a prepared statement. “These protected areas are all that is left of our untrammeled heritage. We will not be denied the freedom to protect them from an administration that is in the process of ignoring and destroying the legislative safeguards that took so many decades to build.”

The e-mail survey was sent last month to roughly 12,250 park employees, who were offered a chance to fill it out anonymously. About 11 percent responded.

The high number of dissatisfied workers could mean that response was skewed toward a particularly vocal subculture of unhappy campers, but many former top administrators from the parks are also speaking out against the Bush Administration.

In August, more than 120 former high-ranking park officials, working with the Campaign to Protect America’s Lands, sent an open letter to Bush and Interior Secretary Gail Norton complaining about efforts to turn over park services to the lowest bidder and the failure to invest in park repairs. Although Bush promised to spend $5 billion on parks during his 2000 campaign, the administration has spent between $200 and $300 million, according to figures from the Campaign to Protect America’s Lands.

Kim Crumbo, who worked for 20 years at the Grand Canyon as a wilderness manager and river ranger, said the survey “indicates there’s a morale problem.”

“A lot of people like their jobs still,” says Crumbo, 56. “It has to do with the direction things are going based on the political appointees at the top.”

Crumbo, who retired about four years ago, now works with two conservation groups, the Arizona Wilderness Coalition and Grand Canyon Wildlife Council. Lately, he’s been involved in a public process to determine the future of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. But after almost two years of gathering public input, the Interior Department is now seeking a congressional end run around the process.

“It pretty well negates all the public involvement and comments to date that are defending a wilderness designation,” said Crumbo.

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Posted inDennis Myers Memorial

Environment

DOE in the dock
The U.S. Department of Energy must be feeling the squeeze.

While DOE officials have pushed hard to get their Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump open, their progress has been slowed to a crawl by scientific criticism, state opposition and safety regulations—and now nuclear power companies are taking them to court, saying they want either a dump or their money back.

Right now a trial is underway in Washington, D.C., to determine the government’s responsibility for its failure to open the dump by 1998, as promised.

Yankee Atomic Electric Company, which has nuclear reactors in three New England states (one of them permanently shut down for safety reasons), is one of many companies that have lined up to sue the feds, and its trial started last week.

A quarter-century ago, the federal government started charging the companies hefty fees to pay for a single national waste dump and pledged to start taking wastes off the companies’ hands when the dump was completed. Eventually, Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in Nye County was targeted as the only site to be studied for its suitability, but the project has been plagued by doubts from the scientific community and opposition from the state. The 1998 start date for the dump came and went, and in January there was a rush of lawsuit filings by companies to beat the expiration of the statute of limitations for such suits.

The DOE has repeatedly promised unrealistic schedules, giving timetables with all the compelling credibility of Amtrak schedules. In fact, DOE is still doing so. Last year it said it could have the dump ready by 2010. Jerry Stouck, lawyer for Yankee, told the National Law Journal in January, “No one believes that.”

Dump critics don’t fault the companies, however suspicious they otherwise are of those firms. They say the dump project is typical of a chronic federal problem of smugness and arrogance in nuclear technology, of launching initiatives prematurely, before the technology exists and without providing for fallbacks if the program doesn’t work—and without consulting with affected populations.

In this sense, the Yucca project is reminiscent of the federal “Atoms for Peace” program that the United States launched in the 1950s, encouraging the spread of nuclear technology and power plants to other nations and promising to accept the foreign waste here. When shipments of waste started arriving on the West Coast in the 1990s, many of them were transported to a dump in Idaho through local communities (including the Truckee Meadows) that freaked at the prospect, generating anger and protests.

In the case of the promise to take the U.S. nuclear-power companies’ waste, opponents of the Yucca dump say Congress committed the federal government to a solution to the waste problem without knowing its technical feasibility, and the taxpayers are now being held hostage to that commitment. In addition, Congress underestimated the scientific rigor it faced in creating a nuclear-waste dump and has more than once been forced to enact legislation to coax the project along. In 1992, for instance, Congress ordered both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to devote more effort and resources to accelerating the pace of the Yucca project.

Lawyers for the companies charge that the U.S. Department of Energy has done little to get the dump opened, which is not the case. In fact, in other quarters DOE has been criticized for being too aggressive in trying to hurry the process along. Such pressure from DOE has often undercut the scientific process; indeed, a few days ago that aggressiveness led to an adverse federal court ruling that set the project back still further by requiring either fundamental changes in the project or new congressional action.

The companies’ lawsuits are heard in the Court of Federal Claims in Washington, and there are plenty of corporations in the pipeline after Yankee. There was a rush of filings just before the statute of limitations expired in January, and more than 60 companies are seeking compensation that could cost billions—$50 billion is the figure most frequently cited.

The government’s best hope for avoiding substantial awards to the companies seems to be arguing that just opening a dump on the promised Jan. 31, 1998, date does not mean that waste would have promptly been shipped from power plants. Shipments to Yucca, government lawyers are expected to argue, would have taken place slowly and cautiously over a period of years to assure safe transport of the tens of thousands of tons of waste at plants. Yankee, for instance, might not yet have had its waste removed at all even if the dump had been opened on time.

For Nevada, the risk is that the prospect of substantial damage awards will convince Congress to approve more measures that accelerate the study process for Yucca. But Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Harry Reid refuses to get dragged into that debate, staying on message when the issue is raised: “The best way to address these court cases is for the government to take responsibility for the waste on site and put it in dry cask storage immediately. Yucca Mountain is riddled with problems, and I don’t believe it will ever open.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...