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July 27, 2017

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Nuclear repository fire shines light on Nevada’s waste

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L.E. Baskow

The US Ecology site outside of Beatty, Nevada, off of US 95 the day after a fire in a nuclear waste dump they operate on Tuesday, October 20, 2015.

U.S. Ecology Fire Town Hall in Beatty

Beatty resident Teresa Sullivan expresses her concerns during the town hall meeting about the lack of emergency personal available in the area with the recent fire at US Ecology near Beatty, Nevada, a good example of why more is needed on Tuesday, October 20,  2015. Launch slideshow »

A fire at a nuclear waste dump in Beatty did more than just snarl traffic — it shone a light on the close relationship between the state of Nevada and the company that runs the low-level repository.

US Ecology, which operates the sole hazardous waste landfill in the state, manages 22 low-level nuclear waste trenches in Nevada, which were filled up from 1970 to 1992. Next to the nuclear storage site, the company also operates one of the eight hazardous waste and treatment facilities in the state.

Drivers on U.S. 95 can often see the company’s trucks driving in and out of the desert. They’re carrying hazardous chemicals and materials largely from California to that facility, made up of storage tanks and lined holes in the desert that range in the size from a sandbox to a a few football fields.

The state, which leases 80 acres to US Ecology, charges the company a fee for every shipment of waste to the waste and treatment facility. Over the last five years, fees have totaled more than $10 million, said JoAnn Kittrell, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The hazardous materials storage site is almost full and the company may lease more land from the state. An agreement is in the works that would increase the site by 400 acres and extend the facility’s lifespan by at least 20 years, said David Crumrine, a spokesman for US Ecology.

Environmental Protection Agency documents from 2012 showed the company was allowed to store up to 87,400 gallons of chemicals in tanks and containers and treat 137,000 gallons of chemical waste every day. It also disposed of at least 808 million gallons of waste there.

For Beatty residents, the 11-mile gap between Main Street and the storage site isn’t a big deal. Many in the town support a fully operating, high-level nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain — a federal project that sits 20 miles away. Some lifelong residents remember the nuclear blasts at the Nevada Test Site, now called the Nevada National Security Site.

Sunday’s nuclear fire, which reportedly did not emit above-average doses of radiation, did not faze many of the residents. Beatty has a close relationship with US Ecology, which has donated money to the town’s senior center, volunteer fire department and Chamber of Commerce. “To most people I talked to it was just another day,” said Randy Reed, member of the Beatty town board. “You say ‘nuclear’ and everyone thinks something’s going to melt your face off and grow a third arm.”

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