Public hearing on proposed Yucca rail line possible, chairman says


WASHINGTON — The federal railroad board's chairman says he is open to holding a public hearing on the Department of Energy application to build a rural Nevada rail line to ship nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.

Charles Nottingham said the three-member Surface Transportation Board generally does not hold public hearings. It decides most of its rail construction cases based on paper records that are filed by applicants.

However, Nottingham said he planned to recommend to the two other board members that a public hearing be scheduled on Yucca Mountain rail "given the importance of this proposed project and the extensive public interest involved."

Nottingham made the comments in a letter dated Friday to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. A copy was obtained today.

A Reid spokesman confirmed the senator's staff has met with counterparts at the Surface Transportation Board to discuss when the hearing could be scheduled. No date has been announced, and Nottingham in his letter said it could be "most likely in the next several months."

The Surface Transportation Board is considering an application to build a 330-mile rail line from Caliente across rural Nevada to the Yucca Mountain site, where the Energy Department plans to build a nuclear waste handling complex and an underground tunnel system to store the highly radioactive materials.

Nevada members of Congress, who oppose the Yucca project, have pressed the board to hear public testimony on the railroad, arguing that the project will have implications for rail traffic across the country when the Energy Department commences shipments of waste from 39 states.

"The DOE plan will affect millions of Nevadans and Americans across the country, and it is so important that the public be given a chance to voice opposition to this project," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

"It's important that Nevadans have their voices heard before the administration spends billions more of taxpayer dollars to build a railway for radioactive waste through their backyards to this failed dump," Reid said.

Yucca Mountain opponents are turning their sights on the railroad portion of the repository project that has been underfunded to date as DOE has shifted resources to planning other segments.

The Surface Transportation Board this summer rejected a Nevada request that the DOE rail construction application be rejected outright. Since then the proposal has been under review, and agency officials say they do not know when a decision will be reached.

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, announced it has set up a Web site, www.dontdumponnevada.org, where the public can send messages urging the Surface Transportation Board to reject the application.

Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada also have initiated a Nevada media campaign to call attention to the railroad project.

PLAN spokesman Launce Rake said the groups have made an initial investment of $100,000 for English and Spanish-language newspaper and business publication ads, and radio commercials.

Friends of the Earth also is spending an undisclosed sum for ads in progressive Internet blogs in selected parts of the country, said Erich Pica, domestic campaigns director for the organization.

"The transportation issue is one the rest of the country should definitely be aware of," Pica said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.