South Dakota’s Nuclear Waste War–Piercing Janklow’s Iron Curtains of Secrecy
By Donald Pay
The first article in this serialized history of the nuclear waste issue in South DakotaI discussed the initial effort (in July and August 1982) by the Technical Information Project to discover what the Janklow Administration had in mind when a state bureaucrat seemed to volunteer South Dakota as the host state for a radioactive waste disposal facility to handle the waste Midwest Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact. This article looks at the events of late 1982 and how two of Governor Bill Janklow’s “Iron Curtains of Secrecy” ate away at his credibility on the nuclear waste issue. Links provided to press accounts are through newspapers.com, which provides free access for a week trial period.
Joel Smith had the hangdog look of a mid-level bureaucrat whose career was in collapse. I was passing through the Department of Water and Natural Resources office to look at state files. Smith told me the Governor had ordered him not to talk to anyone about the nuclear waste issue. He also said he had no authority to let me look at state files on the matter.
Smith had crossed Governor Bill Janklow by being honest. The Chicago Tribune had printed Smith’s statement at the meeting of states negotiating the Midwest States Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact that South Dakota was considering hosting the compact’s nuclear waste dump. The statement created quite a stir at the Chicago meeting, and again in South Dakota when the story broke a few days later in local media.
Janklow tried to stitch together the holes Smith had cut in his Iron Curtain of Secrecy. The 1982 campaign season was on the horizon. Janklow wanted to keep radioactive waste, if not out of South Dakota, at least out of his reelection campaign. He limited the Department of Water and Natural Resources officials who could speak on the issue, closed state files, then months later reopened them after they were cleansed. Only Janklow, and sometimes his Secretary of the Department of Water and Natural Resources, Bob Neufeld, commented on radioactive waste matters.
The Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the Rapid City Journal, and the Associated Press sniffed around the edges of the story for a couple months, printing occasional updates. State journalists, however, couldn’t find the meat behind the “Iron Curtain of Secrecy.” Governor Janklow or Secretary Neufeld strongly denied any interest in hosting a low-level radioactive waste dump in South Dakota. An Argus Leader editorial went so far as to praise Janklow for his leadership, saying South Dakotans don’t want such a dump
Journalist Randy Bradbury (Rapid City Journal, July 30, 1982) quoted Secretary Neufeld on the radioactive waste compact negotiations. It’s “not that big an issue,” assured Neufeld. Yet, ironically, it was too big to open up state files so people could see what had been going on.
The Technical Information Project, a small public interest research group that Deb Rogers and I founded, began mailing out occasional newsletters containing in-depth coverage of the nuclear waste issue. The first issue was mailed out in August 1982 to environmental groups and concerned citizens. In that newsletter TIP predicted the Black Hills Ordnance Depot near Igloo in Fall River County was the likely proposed site of a radioactive waste dump for a third of the nation’s nuclear waste. Once TIP’s newsletter started to circulate, people responded, and the issue began a slow boil.
Janklow’s claim that he didn’t support a nuclear dump and his failure to open state files to the public and press increased suspicion that the truth was different from the picture he was attempting to paint. Eventually, the instincts of the press, especially those of Argus Leader reporter Rob Swenson, kicked in.
In late August, Janklow and Neufeld began hedging their statements. Deb Rogers of the Technical Information Project had contacted Argus reporter Swenson about that change in tone. Swenson’s article (Argus Leader, August 27, 1982) quoted Rogers about the Administration “changing their tune” on the nuclear waste issue. Janklow no longer denied South Dakota had researched hosting a radioactive waste dump, and he was less forceful in saying “never” to hosting a dump. In that article, Swenson quoted State Senator Mike O’Connor, a Democrat, about the new line Janklow was spouting, “This also casts a shadow of doubt on what we can expect after November,” said O’Connor. O’Connor was the Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate in 1982. As Janklow had feared, O’Connor had decided to make the nuclear waste issue a part of his campaign.
Janklow came up with a number of excuses to keep state files off limits from public viewing. He claimed the state files were “working papers,” which didn’t need to be disclosed under state law. But what was he working on? Suspicion built.
Janklow’s information blackout turned the Technical Information Project into the main outlet for the public and journalists to obtain information on the nuclear waste issue. TIP served as a neutral arbiter of information on the issue, while Janklow and Neufeld gave out increasingly contradictory political spin.
Some context is needed here. South Dakota in the late 1970s to mid-1990s had a very active environmental community, kicked into high gear by a number of local and state issues. Efforts to halt uranium mining engaged many, especially in West River. In 1981 the Legislature’s interim study sought to update the state’s mining law, drawing considerable attention in the environmental community. West River landowners, wildlife interests and environmental groups had allied against Governor Janklow’s proposal to funnel Missouri River water to the ETSI coal slurry pipeline. That issue was just about beaten by the time the nuclear waste issue surfaced.
Many Indigenous activists occupied Black Hills National Forest lands at Victoria Lake, protesting against treaty and human rights violations and against uranium mining in the Hills. The growing controversy over that occupation and a murder there brought investigations and charges against a young Lakota activist whose Rapid City attorney, Jim Leach, convinced famed attorney Gerry Spence to join the defense. Spence later wrote a book, “The Martyrdom of Collins Catch the Bear,” about the case.
The Black Hills Group of the Sierra Club geared up to address the new Black Hills National Forest Management Plan, which involved many issues, including mining on public lands.
East River folks had their own all-consuming issues. United Family Farmers beat back the Oahe Irrigation Project, but had to gear up to support the replacement project, the WEB rural water pipeline. Some folks were involved in cleaning up the James and Sioux Rivers. Others engaged in efforts to stop the CENDAK Irrigation Project and the Garrison Extension Project, two pet Janklow water projects. Upgraded electrical transmission lines crossing the state north to south and east to west united environmental causes with landowner concerns.
The South Dakota Resources Coalition led a groundbreaking grassroots lobbying organization, uniting many groups into one. They, through their lobbyists and members, engaged on many issues of environmental concern during Legislative sessions and board hearings on environmental regulation.
Addressing all these issues in various ways led to a sometimes scattershot or siloed approach to environmental causes, but it brought about considerable citizen activism. Many of the issues were grounded in concern about water quality and water quantity. Water could be a divisive issue. It had been since territorial days, but in the 1970s through the 1990s, water united many conservatives with liberals against the power structure, whether that structure was the federal or state governments, the local business elite or outside corporate interests.
The broader socio-economic situation shaped many issues in the early 1980s. Money was a problem for many South Dakotans at that time. Inflation was sky high, as were interest rates. Wages were low, and a recession, dubbed “stagflation,” was in progress. Jobs were scarce. The farm crisis was in the early years of grinding down South Dakota’s agricultural base. The State of South Dakota budget was in deep fiscal trouble, and cuts had to be made. Given the economic realities, it was exactly the right time for large corporate enterprises to prey on states in the Midwest. And it’s understandable, given the fiscal crises that faced states, that Midwest politicians might be willing to cave to them, and turn their states into sacrifice areas.
The economic recession hit the Technical Information Project, too. TIP wasn’t paying. I needed to find employment. That was not easy in recessionary Pierre, where government cutbacks lessened state government employment opportunities and local business hiring. In late August, I took a job at the Livestock Sanitary Board’s laboratory. I still worked on TIP issues after hours, but I had to cut back much of my public advocacy, at least at first. That left Deb Rogers, soon to be pregnant with our daughter, to carry most of the load.
As the September meeting of the Midwest Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact committee gathered in Michigan, South Dakota’s representative was absent. The radioactive waste compact that Janklow favored was finalized without South Dakota representation.
“There is no big conspiracy here,” said Neufeld under press questioning as he tried to explain away the fact that South Dakota didn’t send its representative to the meeting. Skipping the September Midwest Compact meeting was supposed to assure the issue was kept out of the press. Instead, missing the meeting became the story.
Meanwhile Janklow massaged another change in position. While reiterating that South Dakota would not be a dumping ground, he finally admitted South Dakota had been studying what impact a nuclear waste dump would have on South Dakota. After silencing Smith in July for saying South Dakota was studying hosting a nuclear dump, Janklow nearly quoted Smith in September.
The South Dakota press pursued the story through all of Janklow’s denials and changes of position. Since South Dakota’s experts with the Department of Water and Natural Resources were silenced, the press began to quote out-of-state experts. A story by Randy Bradbury in the Rapid City Journal (September 3, 1982) brought forth this statement from Craig Nerm of EG&G, a nuclear waste consulting firm: “I can’t even really envision a scenario in which South Dakota was selected (to host a dump site), unless it volunteered.” It was pretty easy, actually, to envision that. All he had to do was read the Midwest Compact.
In October 1982 the Technical Information Project issued another newsletter, which began to define how the nuclear waste issue would be fought over for next three years. The newsletter analyzed various options for nuclear waste disposal compacts and non-compact options. Although the Janklow Administration had focused on the Midwest Compact, South Dakota had an option to join two others, the Central States Compact or the Rocky Mountain Compact. Also, South Dakota could develop a two-state compact with North Dakota. TIP laid out the alternatives in some detail. If South Dakota joined the Midwest Compact it would have to abide by its provisions. The Compact, not Governor Janklow, decided which state would host the site. There was no state veto or loophole. In fact, at the same July 7 meeting of the Compact that Joel Smith had all but volunteered South Dakota as the host state, he voted against a provision that exempted states, like South Dakota, that produced little waste from hosting a dump site. It was simple: joining the Midwest Compact would mean South Dakota volunteered as a potential host site.
The other compacts South Dakota could join had a bit more flexibility. There was also consideration of a dump for South Dakota waste only. There was no need to immediately jump into the Midwest Compact, as the federal government’s deadline for states to solve this problem was 1986, four years away. TIP proposed that South Dakota should consider all the options, not just jump into a compact, especially the Midwest Compact, and regret it later.
Following TIP’s lead, Rob Swenson of the Argus Leader began to dig into the state files Janklow had reopened and found what TIP had found—the files didn’t include a copy of the July 7 meeting where Joel Smith had all but volunteered South Dakota to be the dump site. Swenson then obtained a copy of the minutes from an Illinois source. The story was published October 26, 1982, a little over a week before the state’s general election. The headline said it all: “Minutes show S.D. has considered hosting a nuclear dump site.”
Just to add to the fun, a tit-for-tat going on in the press between officials in Illinois and South Dakota. Illinois officials were happy to state that South Dakota had the best geology and remoteness for a radioactive waste dump. Meanwhile DWNR’s Smith had planted a newly minted memo in the recently reopened state files analyzing why Illinois was the “best place” for the dump site. When Janklow finally opened the files to the press, he knew they would find that memo, and print a story on it.
Mike O’Connor, the Democratic Party candidate for Governor, brought up the nuclear waste issue in appearances and debates with Janklow throughout the campaign. Sometimes the waste issue got tied into the discussion over the potential for MX nuclear missile deployment in western South Dakota, which Janklow favored. O’Connor floated the idea that the state should handle its own very small amount of nuclear waste, and skip joining a radioactive waste compact.
The nuclear waste issue, however, didn’t improve O’Connor’s ability to win against the highly popular Janklow, who was re-elected in a landslide. Still, O’Connor elevated the issue of nuclear waste compacts and disposal in the public’s mind, and made Janklow state his position.
But now it is time to peek behind another of Janklow’s Iron Curtains of Secrecy. State Sen. O’Connor’s grim question about what would happen on the nuclear waste issues after the election was happening, in secret, before the election.
The following events were not known during the 1982 campaign. Disclosure would wait until after the election, just as O’Connor had predicted. As South Dakotans listened to Janklow’s supposed opposition to a nuclear dump, Chem-Nuclear Systems, Inc., had responded positively to “an invitation” to study the Black HIlls Ordnance Depot as the site for a low-level radioactive waste dump. Chem-Nuclear secretly scouted out the Ordnance Depot as a potential site for a nuclear dump, even as Janklow and O’Connor debated the issue during the election of 1982.
Who proffered this invitation is not clear, but a relative newcomer to Edgemont would later take credit. Don Hanson was the brother-in-law of the owner of the Edgemont bank. He had recently relocated to Edgemont from Tasmania, an island that is part of Australia. Hanson had quickly ensconced himself as a leader in the Edgemont Chamber of Commerce. Hanson pushed the dump forward as a local economic development effort.
How Don Hanson, with extremely tenuous ties to Edgemont, became the head honcho leading this supposed outreach to Chem-Nuclear remains a mystery. How Chem-Nuclear knew a lot about the Black Hills Ordnance Depot in such a short time is not too surprising. While Governor Janklow was hedging his promises that South Dakota would never host a nuclear dump, Chem-Nuclear was already in the state scouting around the Ordnance Depot for just such a site.
The unanswered question has always been—did Janklow know about Chem-Nuclear’s efforts that fall? Was he hiding it all from the public for months as he lied about what was happening? He would later say that he didn’t know anything about Chem-Nuclear’s efforts until it was announced in the papers in December 1982, a month and a half after the November election. Janklow was hiding information and cleansing information from state files over all of this period. Did that information include contacts with Chem-Nuclear, including an invitation to consider the Black Hills Ordnance Depot as a site for a low-level radioactive waste dump? What was the truth? Let’s consider some points leading to a conclusion that Janklow knew all this—indeed, was masterminding it—and was hiding it from the public.
First, Chem-Nuclear Systems, Inc., operated several dumpsites for hazardous and radioactive wastes. Waste Management, Inc., a huge and controversial waste management company, completed a takeover of Chem-Nuclear in December, just as the public announcement of Chem-Nuclear’s “invitation” to consider South Dakota as a dumpsite for nuclear waste was made. When South Dakota environmental staff members Joel Smith and Randy Brich had been trotting around to various meetings on radioactive waste in 1981, they would have made contact with Chem-Nuclear and Waste Management. Waste Management’s president was an uncle to Lars Herseth, a prominent South Dakota Democratic Party leader. Chem-Nuclear’s founder was originally from South Dakota. The South Dakota connection was strong.
Second, Janklow was known to cultivate former South Dakotans in large corporations as an economic development tool. He had contacts with many in the Chicago-area business community, where Buntrock’s company dominated the solid waste market. Waste Management, Inc., one of the two large solid waste companies in the nation, began its effort to take over Chem-Nuclear Systems, Inc., in July, 1982, in order to bolster its entry into the nuclear waste area. The merger was completed around the same time when Chem-Nuclear Systems, Inc., announced its “invitation” to consider the Black Hills Ordnance Depot as a site for a national nuclear waste dump. Deb Rogers remembers that Janklow was spotted attending a Chicago Cubs game, sitting with Buntrock in his box seats at some point during the nuclear waste fight.
Third, Randy Brich at the Department of Water and Natural Resources was extremely livid when Deb Rogers had predicted in August 1982 that the Black Hills Ordnance Depot was likely to be the site of any radioactive waste dump. He spent considerable time grilling her about how she came to that conclusion. Why would he be so concerned about this prediction if she hadn’t hit on exactly what the Janklow Administration was concealing?
Fourth, just at the time that Chem-Nuclear was beginning its initial contacts in Edgemont, Janklow was, as described above, shifting a bit in his position. After months of denial, he admitted the state had been looking at the impacts of hosting a nuclear dump. He was “changing his tune” in Deb Roger’s words, and his statements continued to shift throughout the campaign.
Fifth, Janklow was the most controlling Governor in South Dakota history. He knew about all the economic development initiatives in the state, and he had a hand in just about all of them. This was a huge one, and it would be totally out of character for Janklow not to have been involved. He just had to get through the campaign, and make it look as though he wasn’t spearheading this effort.
With the campaign over, the next phase of the nuclear waste issue was about to begin. On December 16, 1982, Chem-Nuclear’s K.C. Aly announced publicly what the defeated Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate had hinted would happen after election day. After a “preliminary study” of 7,000 acres at the Black Hills Ordnance Depot, Chem-Nuclear had found that the Ordnance Depot seemed able to safely house low-level nuclear waste. He said the hydrogeology “would be excellent” for nuclear waste burial. He said the company wouldn’t go ahead with more testing if the state didn’t support their plans. He stressed, “We have not met with the governor nor talked to him about the project, but we have plans to brief him.”
Janklow was quoted as telling the press, “I will find out what is going on.” As surmised above, it is likely he knew all along.
Don Hanson touted this would be a “national” nuclear dump, not just one for the Midwest States. Janklow didn’t huff and puff about that statement. He didn’t say absolutely not, as he had a few months earlier. He didn’t reiterate earlier statements that South Dakota must join a compact to prevent a national-scale nuclear dump. Janklow’s response was bureaucratic: any dump would have to meet state environmental protection standards. Then, realizing he had just admitted he envisioned this being permitted, he immediately backtracked, saying he was “generally opposed.” He said, in another dodge, that he didn’t have enough information to comment. All he had to do was look in the state files he had put off limits to everyone else.
An Argus Leader editorial, printed on the 1982 winter solstice, argued against Chem-Nuclear’s dump. If Janklow was going to hand the state over to Chem-Nuclear, he would face opposition.
That Christmas our child passed into her second trimester. Deb Rogers and I told our parents the news that we were going to have a baby.
As 1982 came to a close, Burlington Northern Railroad’s cuts of dozens of jobs in Edgemont had the town desperate for the hundred plus jobs promised by Chem-Nuclear. Chem-Nuclear, now a subsidiary of Waste Management, Inc., bought out the option FHT, Inc, had on 7,000 acres of the Black Hills Ordnance Depot, and the City of Edgemont transferred the land to Chem-Nuclear. The Edgemont and Hot Springs Chambers of Commerce announced support for a low-level radioactive waste dump at the Ordnance Depot.
The Black Hills Energy Coalition, the organization that sponsored the 1980 initiative on uranium mining and nuclear waste, bowed out of the fight against the proposed dump just before the New Year. Linda Hasselstrom, spokeswoman for the group, told a reporter that if the company followed the rules to protect groundwater and the health of the people, “we have no reason to mount any type of campaign.” That, of course, left a lot of room for a change of opinion, but in the meantime others would have to step up.