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Nevada blast delay a victory, critics say
Environmentalists, politicians see time as chance to probe risks
By Judy Fahys and Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune
Red tape has snagged the federal government's plans next month for a massive explosion at the Nevada Test Site.
Court papers filed by Pentagon and U.S. Energy Department lawyers say the Divine Strake test will be delayed by three weeks.
"The proposed detonation of Divine Strake will take place no earlier than June 23," said Jay H. Horman, acting manager of the National Nuclear Security Administration's Nevada Test Site office, in a statement presented to the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas on Monday.
The postponement, rumored last week, marks a victory for critics and opponents who say the federal government has yet to prove that the massive explosion will not harm the environment or people downwind.
The two federal agencies say they need to detonate the 700 tons of explosives - an ammonium nitrate-fuel oil mixture many times more powerful than the 1995 Oklahoma City Related Articles
Divine Strake: Q&A
bombing - to calibrate conventional and nuclear weapons needed to take out a deeply buried enemy bunker.
Attorney Robert Hager in Las Vegas said even with new environmental documents released Friday, it is not clear that Nevadans, including the Winnemucca Indian Colony, and Utahns would be safe if fallout from past atomic testing becomes airborne in the explosion.
"We would like it to be a permanent delay," Hager said, "and we are prepared to go forward [demanding better information on the environmental assessment in court until we] put this matter to bed forever."
The Energy Department's partner in the test, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, denied any delay late Monday.
"As far as we're concerned, we're still saying June 2," said Irene Smith, a spokeswoman for DTRA in Washington. "We have not received any direction that would cause us to change the June 2 date at this point."
But Utah lawmakers, also eager for proof of the test's safety, applauded the delay.
"I'm concerned with getting all the facts out for public view," said U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. "So, this postponement may help accomplish that."
"We would appreciate more time," said Peter Carr, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We've been trying to work with DTRA to get the information that we requested during our briefing and in our letter, and we've had problems getting that information so far."
Nevada lawmakers were likewise satisfied with the delay. "Congresswoman [Shelley] Berkley shares the concerns of those in Utah about the safety of this test and the larger issue of new nuclear weapons development,'' said the Nevada Democrat's Communications Director David Cherry. ''Postponing Divine Strake to allow time for safety questions to be answered is in the best interest of the families of Nevada and Utah, and no argument has been made as to why a delay would be harmful. Given the serious concerns raised by Nevada and Utah officials, a postponement is the only responsible course of action to take in this case. The burden remains on DTRA to prove this test is safe, and they have yet to meet that requirement as far as Congresswoman Berkley is concerned.''
No information was available from the Justice Department's Washington lawyers late Monday.
But, according to Hager, the test must be delayed because the government's environmental paperwork is not in order. After Hager's original request for an injunction to stop the test, attorneys on both sides agreed to a schedule that is being changed to accommodate new information.
Monday, government lawyers promised a new "decision document" that would address many of the environmental and safety questions surrounding the explosion. But they said they could not submit the document until today and that, in turn, means the court schedule for hearings and other key paperwork must be changed.
The additional information will be welcomed by environmental officials in Utah and Nevada.
Nevada air-quality regulators have said they don't have enough details about the blast to decide whether they can issue a pollution permit required for the blast. Meanwhile, regulators from Utah's air-quality and radiation offices have been assigned to review the environmental assessment for assurances that any toxic material from the 10,000-foot debris cloud will stay within the Nevada Test Site borders, as the government has promised. The court-wrangling may force yet another, practical delay in the government's plans for Divine Strake.
DTRA and NNSA officials said during a tour last month that they won't load a mountaintop pit with explosives during Nevada's lightning season. That season begins in mid-June and ends in mid-July.