When Cecil Andrus closed Idaho’s borders to nuclear waste, the former Democratic governor’s decisive action captured the attention of the nation and put pressure on the federal government to remove long-stored waste from a nuclear research complex near Idaho Falls.
“Did I have the authority to do that? No, I did not,” Andrus said with a grin. “… But the federal government flinched.”
The last Democrat to lead deep-red Idaho, Andrus was elected to four terms as governor, interrupted by a four-year Cabinet post as Interior secretary under Jimmy Carter. He’s 85 now, and as he reflects on his career, the nuclear waste showdown looms large — mainly because it’s not over yet.
A 1995 agreement signed by the feds and Gov. Phil Batt, and subsequent court cases, call for all radioactive waste to be removed by 2035 from an 890-square-mile tract the federal government owns west of Idaho Falls. The East Idaho site sits above an aquifer serving half the state’s population and millions of acres of irrigated cropland.
“If something happened to the quality of that water … you couldn’t sell an Idaho baked potato anyplace in the world, because it would be radioactive,” Andrus said.
An Orofino lumberjack spurred to run by concerns over the local schools, Andrus became an Idaho icon.
In 1970, he became the first Democrat in that post in 24 years. Democrats controlled the governorship for the next 24 years, until Batt succeeded Andrus in 1994.
After big fights, he brought kindergarten to Idaho and increased school funding. He halted a major coal power plant proposed near Boise and engineered protection of Idaho’s famed wilderness areas.
“He’s one of the giants of Idaho politics and one of the most effective governors in Idaho history,” said longtime political observer Jim Weatherby, an emeritus professor at Boise State University. “His priorities were clear. … Andrus was a strong leader who also knew the fine art of compromise.”
During Andrus’ first term as governor in 1973, rumblings began in Washington, D.C., about Idaho becoming the nation’s long-term repository for nuclear waste.
Andrus and Idaho Sen. Frank Church, also a Democrat, fired off a telegram to the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dixy Lee Ray —later the governor of Washington — demanding the waste be “removed for permanent storage at the earliest possible date.”
The Idaho governor’s office received Ray’s response Nov. 9, 1973. The letter said in part, “I can assure you that the (Idaho site) is not being considered in any way as the site for permanent disposal of any long-lived nuclear waste.”
The feds broke her promise.
“There was no effort whatsoever on the part of the federal government to clean up the mess,” Andrus said.
After returning as governor in 1986, he decided, “I am closing the borders of the state of Idaho to any importation of nuclear waste.”
His press secretary, Marc Johnson, questioned whether he could do that. Andrus replied, “I want a state police car parked across the railroad tracks, and the train will not deliver any of that garbage to Idaho. We’re through being the dump for the world.”
The trooper assigned to guard the stalled boxcar of radioactive waste at a holding yard in Blackfoot “was a man who had biceps that were larger than my thigh, and he had on a short-sleeved shirt,” Andrus said. “And here he is standing by his patrol car across the railroad track, and a photographer who is a stringer for the New York Times took a picture of him.”
The photo ran in the Sunday Times on Oct. 23, 1988, over the headline, “Idaho Firm on Barring Atomic Waste.”
More headlines followed. Congress took note and, “all of a sudden, we had leverage,” Andrus said.
“They had to hook up to the next train that went the other way, back to Colorado,” he said. “And there was litigation, which we won.”
In the Andrus Archives at Boise State University, three file folders are stuffed with thousands of handwritten and typed letters and phone messages from citizens throughout Idaho and all over the nation lauding Andrus for his stand against the waste. They range from a note from an 11-year-old boy to messages from business leaders, philanthropist Velma Morrison and others.
“If Idaho is too great to litter, then surely it is too great to be a dump,” wrote Judith Dvorak, of Aberdeen.
After the 1995 Batt agreement, the federal government “got serious with cleaning up the waste and have made great progress,” Andrus said. “But there’s still a lot more to do.”
Today, the U.S. Department of Energy oversees cleanup of nuclear and other hazardous waste on the 890-square-mile site, as well as Idaho National Laboratory, the nation’s lead nuclear-energy research facility, whose operations take place in Idaho Falls and on the site.
Four decaying steel tanks of liquid waste remain buried over the aquifer.
“If we had a leak, the worst-case scenarios … would take place immediately,” he said, snapping his fingers. “They’re single-wall stainless steel. They’ve been there over 50 years. Is the good Lord just being nice to us and there’s no leaks? Or did they start to leak yesterday or last night or tomorrow? I don’t know. Phil Batt and I have decided that is the most dangerous thing.”
Andrus and Batt have spoken out against moves by current Gov. Butch Otter to waive the 1995 agreement and allow Idaho National Laboratory to import new spent nuclear fuel shipments before the liquid waste tanks are removed.
Andrus has always been an avid outdoorsman, and he has collected and used firearms for decades.
Yet in 1986, when he ran for his third term as governor, the NRA endorsed his opponent, former Idaho Attorney General David Leroy, who Andrus said “never had a hunting and fishing license in his life, didn’t have a firearm.”
Andrus believes the NRA supported Leroy solely because he was a Republican.
“The NRA in Idaho were conservationists, Democrats and Republicans alike, I mean, a mixture,” he said. “But at the national level, the NRA has always been a right-wing Republican group, and they haven’t changed.”
‘PETTINESS, BITTERNESS, RANCOR ...’
Andrus isn’t happy about today’s politics. He attributes Idaho Democrats’ decline partly to President Bill Clinton, whom he calls “Slick Willie.”
“Some of the issues that came up during his tenure were not helpful to the western United States,” he said.
Environmental initiatives, especially, backfired politically.
“The Republicans were a lot smarter than we Democrats, and Phil Batt did a great job as chairman for the party,” Andrus said.
He has observed today’s split in Idaho’s Republican Party with amusement.
“It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of people — it’s about time,” he said. “We Democrats have a history of fighting among ourselves.”
Andrus said D.C. is worse.
“Pettiness, bitterness, rancor, partisan activities abound, and both parties are guilty. … I’m not pulling my donkey hat on; I’m critical of both of them.”
And with his donkey hat on, Andrus backs Hillary Clinton for president.
“I want to see a woman president of the United States,” he said.