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Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. evidently doesn't think the federal government goes far enough in including the public in the decision-making for a massive bomb test in Nevada.
On Friday, the Utah governor said he would host public hearings on the 700-ton, non-nuclear explosion, dubbed Divine Strake, which critics fear would spread radioactive contamination. In doing so, Huntsman signaled that the state government is among a growing chorus of critics complaining that the federal government's "public information sessions" shut out vital input from the public.
Utah Department of Environmental Quality Director Dianne Nielson stopped short of saying Friday that Huntsman is displeased with the format the National Nuclear Security Agency and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency have chosen.
"It's a publicly significant issue," said Nielson, who is organizing the state hearings, "and anybody who has an issue, or a question or a concern ought to have an opportunity to express those."
The federal government's evening gatherings - scheduled next week for Salt Lake City, St. George and Las Vegas - will be more like open houses than a public debate. That has angered many Utahns, who protested last year there was no forum for public comment on the planned Nevada Test Site explosion.
Huntsman's plan for hearings the week of Jan. 15 became public just as the federal government announced it would extend the comment period by two weeks, to Feb. 7, because 10 pages of its "environmental assessment" of the blast had accidentally been omitted from the document when it was released two weeks ago.
In addition, the Idaho congressional delegation sent a letter to the federal agencies demanding a hearing in that state. And a Nevada nuclear watchdog group said it would videotape public comments outside the Jan. 11 meeting in Las Vegas and submit those comments with its written critique of Divine Strake.
Steve Erickson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit aimed at blocking the blast, said the meeting format showed the federal agencies still don't want to hear what the public has to say about Divine Strake.
"This is what the federal government does when it doesn't want the public to have a say in the decision-making process," he said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, pushed the government to scrap the test blast in spring and do a more in-depth analysis of how much radioactive dirt it would send airborne and downwind. Initially, the federal agencies said none, but the latest analysis, an environmental assessment released just before Christmas, affirms what critics have been saying: Radioactive contaminants will spread beyond the boundaries of the Nevada Test Site, where the blast is set to take place.
After the public sessions, the agencies will have to decide if the effects are insignificant or if a detailed environmental impact statement is needed. The blast has not been scheduled. Divine Strake would use conventional explosives to fine-tune the military's ability to destroy underground bunkers. Agency officials have indicated that the test results are needed to understand the effects of both conventional weapons and nuclear ones.
Vanessa Pierce, executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, praised Huntsman for sponsoring a full-fledged hearing and urged Utahns in Congress to do the same.
"Governor Huntsman has done what the Federal Government failed to do: He's given Utahns a podium, a microphone and a real forum to voice our concerns about Divine Strake," she said. "His action demonstrates a deep understanding of and respect for Utah's tragic past of being downwind. The public has never had a voice on Divine Strake - until now."
Meanwhile, Las Vegas attorney Bob Hager, who represents a Nevada Indian tribe, Erickson and atomic testing downwinders in a lawsuit against Divine Strake, said Thursday he is prepared to go back to court to block the test if the agencies decide the public effect is insignificant. He said the latest analysis, though better, is still poor.
"It's not valid science," he said. "It's sham science."
Public information sessions scheduled by the feds Here is the schedule for gatherings on Divine Strake:
* Tuesday, 6:30-9 p.m., Cashman Convention Center, 850 N. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas
* Wednesday, 6:30-9 p.m., EnergySolutions Arena, 310 W. South Temple St., Salt Lake City
* Thursday, 6:30-9 p.m., Dixie Center, 1835 Convention Center Drive, St. George
Also, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the National Nuclear Security Agency will accept comments on the environmental assessment through Feb. 7. They should be mailed to NNSA/NSO, Divine Strake EA Comments, P.O. Box 98518, Las Vegas, NV 89193-8518, or e-mailed to email@example.com or faxed to 702-295-0625.