Environmental watchdog Donald Pay played a key role in fighting Governor Bill Janklow’s effort to build a nuclear waste dump at the southern edge of the Black Hills. Here, Pay recounts the beginning of that fight in 1982, when he and fellow activist Deb Rogers worked to pierce South Dakota government secrecy and alert the public to Janklow’s scheme.
South Dakota’s nuclear war began 40 years ago
By Donald Pay
This July marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of a years-long battle against disposal of radioactive waste in South Dakota. Grassroots citizens united to defeat policy proposals that would make it possible to construct a national low-level radioactive waste dump at Igloo, in far southwest South Dakota. This article describes how the first few months of that struggle began with a scramble to find out what, exactly, the state was planning.
On July 7, 1982, South Dakota environmental regulator Joel Smith entered a hotel meeting room near Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The first public session drafting the Midwest Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact convened with bureaucrats from 13 states in attendance. The bureaucrats expected a boring day crafting a measure defining how these states would cooperate on issues involving radioactive waste disposal. Most of the compact had been discussed and hammered out behind closed doors at a couple earlier meetings. A few sticky issues remained to be settled.
Radioactive waste disposal was not a big issue in South Dakota. The state generated little radioactive waste, so there was little need for disposal sites to take care of that waste. That was not true in other states with representatives attending the meeting. Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota generated a lot of waste, mostly from nuclear power plants, and there was increasing concern about how to dispose of it.
The issue was of concern to some citizens in South Dakota, however. In 1980 the Black Hills Energy Coalition included banning radioactive waste disposal in a statewide initiative that was mostly billed as a ban on uranium mining, a big issue at the time. That initiative failed, but it, along with several others in other states that year, spurred Congress to devolve more power to the states to figure out how to dispose of less dangerous “low-level radioactive wastes,” while the federal government sorted out what to do with the “high-level wastes.” Congress suggested states could use compacts, agreements between states, to band together in regional agreements to solve the low-level radioactive waste problem.
Attendees at the Midwest Compact meeting expected South Dakota’s delegate to sit silently as discussion turned to the dicey question of a host state, the state that was to have responsibility to site and develop a radioactive waste disposal facility for use by compact states. The assumption of most at the meeting was that responsibility would be bestowed on a state that generated a lot of this waste. South Dakota was thought to be in the clear.
Then Smith piped up. He didn’t exactly say that South Dakota was volunteering to host a nuclear waste dump, but he gave everyone the impression that was the case. Smith’s statement changed the tenor of the discussion, and South Dakota history.
Unknown to the public at the time, the Janklow Administration was keenly interested in radioactive waste disposal. Governor Bill Janklow had recently moved responsibilities for radiation matters from the Department of Health to the Department of Water and Natural Resources. Since at least June 1981, a year before this Chicago meeting, South Dakota employees at DWNR researched issues involved in radioactive waste disposal. Smith authored a June 1981 memorandum running down the pros and cons of joining a compact for disposal of low-level radioactive waste. The memo also recommended the state “…identify areas of the state that might be considered for a disposal site.” While other states were figuring out how to dodge hosting a dump, South Dakota was studying which sites in the state might host a radioactive waste disposal site. Smith and Randy Brich, another South Dakota environmental regulator, attended several out-of-state meetings on radioactive waste management in the spring of 1982. Smith took on the responsibility for heading up compact negotiations.
From Smith’s and Brich’s year-long efforts it can be seen that Smith’s reported statement at the Chicago meeting was absolutely true. Indeed, South Dakota officials had traveled a considerable distance down the long path to deciding to host a disposal site for low-level radioactive waste.
The Janklow administration’s interest in radioactive waste may have extended to the more dangerous high-level radioactive wastes. In 1981 the United States Geological Survey conducted research on Pierre Shale for the Office of Waste Isolation in the Department of Energy, which at the time was scouting the nation for sites for a repository for high-level radioactive wastes. USGS completed core drilling in the area around Hayes, west of Pierre, to extract samples that were later analyzed for their geomechanical properties. Janklow later admitted he had approved this study, but claimed it to be only for research purposes.
In the Chicago Tribune newsroom, Casey Bukro’s phone rang. A stringer reported that a South Dakota official had announced to the Midwest Compact meeting that South Dakota “was considering hosting” a disposal site for the radioactive waste. That was big news in Illinois, where a controversy had erupted over that state hosting another nuclear dump. The one it had was closed and leaking. If South Dakota was going to take Illinois off the hook for hosting, the story was newsworthy in Illinois. Bukro took a few days to find a source, then wrote up the story. South Dakota media picked up that story. Janklow’s push to turn South Dakota into a nuclear waste dump had been outed.
The word “bombshell” is overused these days, but it applied here. First to explode was Governor Janklow, who reacted in the way he usually reacted when he got caught with his pants down on an important issue—he denied the report and found fault with the media. Janklow immediately silenced the flummoxed staff at the Department of Water and Natural Resources. No one there would answer questions, on the record or off. Janklow was able to steer South Dakota’s press away from in-depth reporting for a few months.
Deb Rogers and I, the two founders of the Technical Information Project, began to research the issue. We had been involved in similar issues in Wisconsin, so we knew state agencies would have this information in their files. South Dakota had an open records law that said citizens had a right to look at state files. I went up the chain of command in the Department of Water and Natural Resources seeking access to the state files. I was repeatedly blocked from accessing these files, so I sent out a press release notifying the state’s press and public. The more Janklow attempted to slam down an iron curtain of secrecy around this issue, the more people believed there was something behind that curtain.
If South Dakota officials were going to illegal lengths to hide information, the Technical Information Project would find a way around them. Over the next month Deb Rogers talked to a number of people in Wisconsin and Illinois. She found an Illinois source, Dr. Bruce Von Zellen, who had attended the meeting in the Chicago O’Hare hotel and was willing to talk on the record. Since South Dakota was not forking over state files, I contacted officials in the State of Wisconsin to request information about the July meeting of the Midwest Compact.
Dr. Von Zellen, it turned out, had a conversation with Smith during a recess in the compact meeting. The following is Von Zellen’s account, as the conversation was reconstructed from Roger’s notes:
“Where do you get your authority?” Von Zellen asked. “The Legislature?”
“No,” Smith answered.
“The Governor, then. Does the Governor know what you’re doing, saying.”
“Of course he does. There’s a big election coming up so we can’t pursue it now.”
“Why?” asked Von Zellen.
“Look at the trouble in Illinois,” chuckled Smith.
“Governor Thompson says it’s a dynamite issue.”
“It would be the same in South Dakota. It can’t come up before the election,” Smith explained.
Von Zellen pushed forward, veering into technical issues. “It would be too difficult to site it. There’s a shallow water table in eastern South Dakota.”
“If you go west of the river, it’s fine,” assured Smith.
It was nice to have Von Zellen’s account, but it would be better if the public could see Smith’s purported statements reflected in the minutes of the Midwest Compact meeting. With South Dakota officials closing their files, we needed State of Wisconsin officials to come through. After a couple weeks a packet of information from Wisconsin landed in TIP’s Pierre post office box. I ripped open the envelope to find the minutes of the July 7 meeting. I read with relish.
As noted above, Dr. Von Zellen had drawn out information from Smith indicating that a site in West River was being considered for this disposal facility. The location of the proposed site was the next question the Technical Information Project had to solve.
Some backstory is required. The federal government closed the Black Hills Ordnance Depot (known also as the Black Hills Army Depot) in 1967. The Depot, located 8 miles southwest of Edgemont, had been carved out of 21,000 acres of South Dakota ranchland during World War II. The military used the facility to store and process ordnance and to dispose and burn some of the chemicals and explosives from various types of ammunition. In the 1960s Congress decided to consolidate these facilities. The military closed the Black Hills facility, and handed it over to the City of Edgemont. The City then leased (with an option to buy) a good chunk of the former depot to FHT, Inc.
FHT consisted of two pig farmers, Jerald Feuerhelm and Burton Hutton, the “F” and “H” in FHT, and moneyman Hayden Thompson, the “T.” The corporation had a pig production operation, housed in the concrete “igloos” formerly used by the Army for storage of ordnance. By 1980 FHT found itself near the end of an 18-year waiver of property taxes with several failed and failing agriculture businesses, two dead partners, and a court battle over corporate ownership. In 1980 FHT decided to take a step away from failing agricultural businesses and move into hazardous waste.
FHT sent notice to the US Environmental Protection Agency that its property in the former Ordnance Depot was an “existing hazardous waste landfill,” claiming that past military disposal in the area qualified the site for “interim status” designation under new EPA hazardous waste rules. Interim status would come with an exemption from meeting new federal standards for such sites. FHT could then immediately open the property to disposing chemical wastes, and reap profits from industries desperate to get rid of wastes before costs would increase at upgraded facilities.
In short, FHT was proposing a scam. South Dakota’s environmental regulators seemed to be supporting them. What FHT didn’t have is support from the local community—not from the tireless postmistress who served Provo, not from the skeptical Republican ranchers surrounding the former Army Depot, and not from the Mayor of Edgemont. Local folks put up enough fuss that the Reagan-era EPA turned down FHT’s proposal. The local citizens didn’t realize Janklow was secretly planning for Round 2.
As Rogers talked to local people and found out more information about the Ordnance Depot, it seemed to be a likely location for Janklow’s radioactive waste dump. Adjacent to the Burlington Northern rail line which had just been upgraded to carry coal from the new Wyoming strip mines, the site had decent on-site infrastructure. The Technical Information Project went out on a very short and sturdy limb to identify the former Army Depot at Igloo as the likely site for the radioactive waste site. Rogers, unlike the Janklow Administration, announced it publicly.
Because I generated a ruckus via press release, Governor Janklow didn’t consider me worthy to view the state’s nuclear waste files. He charged I hadn’t been “polite” when asking to see the illegally withheld files. TIP had to find another route to those files. Rogers made a request that Janklow deemed sufficiently “polite,” and was granted the opportunity to view the files. When she showed up at the Department of Water and Natural Resource office, she came under withering questioning by DWNR’s Brich. He belligerently questioned Rogers on why she said the disposal facility was likely to be sited at the former Black HIlls Ordnance Depot.
What Rogers didn’t find in the state files was a copy of the minutes of that July 7th Midwest Compact meeting. Were those minutes misplaced, or were they illegally withheld? That is impossible to know. In the end, it didn’t matter. TIP had a copy of those minutes thanks to the State of Wisconsin. No amount of Janklow bluster and spin, no amount of doctoring state files would overcome Smith’s clear, honest words included in those minutes, “The Midwest Compact is being reviewed internally. That State is gathering information on hosting and the environmental considerations of such an action.”