The Department of Energy got a tongue-lashing last night when it explained to this small town that it might become the site of the nation's permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste.
The local residents don't like either the eastern corporate power structure that they blame for producing the wastes or the federal government, which is thinking of putting them here.
The meeting was billed as a public hearing, but at times the four-hour session in the high school auditorium had the atmosphere of a public hanging, as angry citizens chastised the DOE for threatening the area's agricultural productivity, for potentially contaminating the huge Ogalala Aquifer that is the region's underground water source and for being a tool of eastern utilities desperately looking for a dump site for their radioactive wastes.
Local residents seconded the accusations of Rep. Kent R. Hance (D-Tex.) that the DOE had been "lackadaisical" and that it had shown a "lack of courtesy and cooperation" in the process that identified Deaf Smith County as one of the possible sites for an underground repository for nuclear wastes.
The DOE chose Deaf Smith County and nearby Swisher County as potential waste sites because of the large, bedded salt deposits lying several thousand feet below the surface of their land.
Salt is considered an asset for a waste site because it is easy to mine, is supposed to be structurally sound and has good radiation-shielding properties.
Some residents of Deaf Smith County told the four DOE officials who attended the session that they would bitterly fight the dump if the agency keeps their county on its list of possible locations.
"We have no national responsibility to accept this nuclear trash," said Tim Revell, a leader of a local group called POWER (People Opposed to Waste Energy Repositories). Others said that they would move if the dump is placed there. "I will take my loved ones and leave if we are chosen to become a repository," said Virginia Artho, a young homemaker.
One man warned the DOE that residents would fight the dump with "legislators, lawyers and lead."
Brian J. Quirke, a DOE spokesman, said that Monday's session, the first of three in Texas, was the most hostile that the agency has encountered this spring.
"People have been more personal than we'd been led to believe," he said about the criticisms. "They're very angry at DOE."
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act, signed by President Reagan last Jan. 7, set in motion a process for finding a permanent repository for the nation's growing volume of nuclear waste, both from commercial nuclear power plants and from the military. Lack of safe, permanent storage threatens the nuclear power industry.
The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that states may block the development of nuclear power plants if utility companies cannot show that they have found a way to store their wastes permanently.
In February the DOE identified nine sites in six states that it considered potentially suitable for deep underground storage.
The department is looking at rock formations in Washington and Nevada and at salt domes or deposits in Mississippi, Louisiana, Utah and Texas. Two sites were identified in Texas, one north of Hereford and the other near Tulia, also in the panhandle.
The DOE hopes to narrow its list to five sites by next fall and to three by next spring. After detailed studies of the three finalists, the president is scheduled to recommend one site in 1987. That facility is supposed to begin accepting nuclear waste in 1998.
But residents here made it clear that they have no faith in the government's ability to develop a safe storage system, even several thousand feet below ground, and that they feel they are being singled out as a possible site because Texas lacks the political clout of states east of the Mississippi River, where most nuclear plants are located. They repeatedly scolded the DOE for calling their area "virtually uninhabited."
"Congress didn't ask DOE to find an area of national sacrifice. And the people of Deaf Smith County refuse to become your sacrificial lambs," Margaret Marshall said.
The Deaf Smith County commissioners court has approved a resolution opposing the waste repository. The Texas Farm Bureau also opposes it.
One speaker said that he has affidavits from 37 area banks and businesses that don't want it located there. Another speaker said that she has petitions signed by more than 3,000 people who feel the same way.
The damage to local agriculture was the topic of most concern. "To even consider this in the second most productive county in Texas is completely asinine," Karl Kleuskins said.