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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- It will be interesting to learn how one science-related element of the presidential election campaign plays out in Western New York, and whether a snap-answer remark made by Democratic candidate John Kerry last week more than half a nation away can turn into a local hot-button issue that hurts President Bush in this region.

Political experts expect Kerry to take New York state due to overwhelming Democratic support in New York City, but a regional glow-in-the-dark issue that is quietly ignored because of its lack of any popular resolution has surfaced in the 2004 presidential fray. The problem is what to do with immense quantities of nuclear waste buried about 25 miles up the road from here in the Town of Ashford at the West Valley Demonstration Project.

Much of the nuclear waste -- spent fuel left over from nuclear power plants that have since been shut down -- was supposed to be buried deep under Yucca Mountain about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas in Nevada in a controversial $58 billion project that would seal off in one place similar substances from 111 radioactive sites around the nation. The mountain would eventually sit atop 77,000 tons of spent fuel from research labs, nuclear power plants, and reactors on Navy submarines and other ships. It would be buried 1,000 feet deep.

George W. Bush, in the 2000 campaign, vowed he would oppose the Yucca Mountain site unless scientists showed him it was environmentally safe. Nevada voters, who heavily oppose situating the rest of the nation's nuclear garbage in their wide-open spaces, narrowly carried the state and its five electoral votes for Bush -- largely on the strength of that promise.

Dubya was in office slightly more than a year when he quietly reversed field and designated Yucca Mountain the ultimate repository for dangerous nuclear waste now stored at more than 100 sites across the country, including West Valley. He said science showed it safe, even though many scientists disagreed. Nevada residents, including Republican leaders, howled. Legal motions ensued. A federal court a few months ago ruled the federal government had not set adequate standards to prevent radioactive leaks far into the future. Bush shrugged it off and said he would let the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or court appeals decide the matter -- which seems headed for the Supreme Court.

A week ago, Kerry was fielding questions in a Las Vegas library appearance when a woman asked him about the topic.

He said, "With John Kerry as president, there is going to be no nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, period." Later, he lit into Bush for "recklessness and arrogance" in approving the site while safety and health issues are still unsettled. Bush hustled to Las Vegas two days later to explain his decision and accuse Kerry (and his running mate John Edwards) of flip-flopping after voting in favor of Yucca Mountain in several Senate votes. The Kerry campaign retorted those votes were either procedural or involved broader general funding, and that the Massachusetts senator voted no on the principal Yucca storage legislation.

Department of Energy studies show about 50 million Americans in 45 states live within a half-mile of planned highway and train routes to be used for transportation of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.

The flap poses a problem for Western New York Republican leaders. They don't want to hurt President Bush's chances in a swing state where even five electoral votes could decide the national contest -- even if it means keeping mum about a health issue that many constituents in this region consider vital. To praise the permanent storage site and the White House decision might cheese off enough Nevadans to lose a close election.

At the same time, some local GOP honchos are on the record lauding Yucca Mountain as the solution to a vexing regional headache and could gain local political favor by reiterating that stance. Rep. Tom Reynolds, the regional GOP congressman currently most concerned with West Valley, when Yucca Mountain was approved in 2002, said, "Moving nuclear waste from temporary, stationary sites such as West Valley to a permanent repository will make us less susceptible to terrorist attacks, and will clear that waste away from many sites that are near major cities and waterways." Attempts to reach him on the Kerry comment were futile.

Indeed, West Valley has been the target of bad circumstance and ill luck ever since it was designated more than 40 years ago as a "temporary" repository for nuclear waste. Federal energy authorities had quietly scheduled in mid-September of 2001 a transcontinental train shipment of 125 highly radioactive nuclear fuel assemblies from West Valley through 10 states to an Idaho dump site. A few days before, on Sept. 11, terrorist hijackers attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The Department of Energy postponed the removal due to fear the train would make a vulnerable terrorist target.

In July of last year, the DOE quietly shipped by train the 125 irradiated fuel rod bundles from West Valley over 2,360 miles of railroad to the Idaho site without informing local health officials or first responders -- or the public -- in any of the communities along the route. The seven-car train left Ashford shortly after midnight. Again, the DOE chiefs said concern for national security prompted the silence.

West Valley was closed in 1972 as a reprocessing facility for spent fuel from civilian and military nuclear reactors, but not before 5 million gallons of liquid radioactive wastes were discharged into on-site tributaries of Cattaraugus Creek. The Department of Energy took over the 3,345-acre site in 1981 and was vexed with so much subsequent radioactive leakage that at one point federal scientists considered stabilizing porous ground sites with highly absorbent kitty litter. Currently, liquid high-level radioactive wastes are captured and stabilized in special glass canisters.

The overall disposal problem of this nightmare substance that was a half-century ago hailed as the salvation of human power needs was nicely put recently by Carol Mongerson, co-founder of the activist West Valley Coalition on Nuclear Waste.

"There's no place that isn't somebody's backyard," she said.

ANIMAL WELFARE -- Some months ago, I wrote a column explaining my reasons for making charitable contributions to outfits that advanced the good of animals, rather than humans. The unconditional love and trust that pets show was one of them. Great need was another. Absence of greed and thievery on the part of animals was another.

Anyway, the column prompted a heavy flow of electronic mail, most of it complimentary, and a couple of odd communications accusing me of stupidly falling prey to the machinations of that great malevolent lobby -- the vegetarians. I'm not a vegetarian, and I don't give a hoot what other people want to eat as long as it's not me. But cases keep coming along all the time that seem to indicate severe neglect of animals is on the rise, not the wane.

Last November, in Fulton County in upstate New York, the local SPCA and a rescue group called Spring Farm CARES intervened at a farm where the owners kept more than 230 animals, including three dozen wolf hounds, two Belgian draft horses, about a dozen other horses, some pit bulls, rabbits, goats, donkeys, cows, sheep, pigs, guinea pigs, chickens, peacocks, three Canada geese, and a variety of other birds and animals.

According to Dana Campbell, a senior attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund -- which later got involved -- the farm conditions were "extremely squalid" and most of the animals were "starving, emaciated, and some resorting to cannibalism to survive." Half a dozen larger animals were already dead and one of the living horses had to be put down because it was about 500 pounds underweight. Many of the animals were disease ridden.

Larger animals lay in mud, and -- reports Campbell -- smaller animals were kept in cages with "accumulated feces, and even the skeletal remains of animals that had died and decomposed." Some rotting animal bodies were found in cages stacked six inches deep in waste. The surviving animals were rescued and given veterinary care. Some were placed in foster homes, and anti-cruelty officials pressed for prosecution of the couple that owned the farm for failure to provide proper food and water under New York state's fairly strong Agriculture and Markets Law.

But by last March, the Fulton County district attorney's office had failed to file any formal charges at all, and worse, planned to return about 50 of the surviving farm animals back to the farm couple. The Animal Legal Defense Fund and the New York State Humane Association descended on Fulton County and organized heavily publicized press conferences. The district attorney finally filed multiple charges against the owners in May, and publicly announced abandonment of plans to give any of the rescued animals back to the accused farm couple.

The case is still pending, but these disturbing scenarios are not uncommon. Campbell claims the local coverage in newspapers and on TV "have generated calls from other animal protection agencies and activists" in upstate New York asking for Animal Legal Defense Fund's help with similar situations.

Joyce Tischler, executive director of the California-based ALDF, maintains that Fulton County's response "to this horrific abuse case is not unusual." She claims that "countless localities are ignorant of relevant law and therefore fall short of their responsibility to protect animals. District attorneys don't know their legal options or, worse, can't be bothered. Law enforcement doesn't want to invest the time, and even judges look the other way."

What's worse, according to Tischler, is "that authorities were on the verge of returning the animals who had been hurt so badly back into the alleged abusers' clutches ... even when the neglect and abuse was fully documented on film."

Sorry, I still think the cards are stacked against animals.

They can't go out and hire lawyers, or lobby the politicians, or vote in sympathetic legislators. If we routinely treat them badly, it's likely we'll treat fellow humans worse.

And for all you paid stooges from the beef lobby about to write me under guise of common readers -- don't sweat it -- I'm fixing to go out and eat a big fat steak right now.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Aug. 17 2004