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The Navy's massive nuclear homeport project on North Island has come down to two state hazardous-waste permits that are pending before the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. One permit was set to go into effect two weeks ago but has been appealed. The other should be drafted in a matter of months.

North Island's transformation into what Pentagon planners call "the key" element in the Navy's nuclear fleet is a huge undertaking. If, as anticipated, three nuclear aircraft carriers are stationed there, the construction budget for support facilities alone could run as high as half a billion dollars; the San Diego Chamber of Commerce claims the operation could inject $2.5 billion annually into the local economy.

But the North Island nuclear homeport will also add millions of pounds of hazardous waste and thousands of cubic feet of radioactive refuse to the waste burden of the base -- which is upwind and within one mile of downtown San Diego and next door to Coronado.

The permit allows most of the new waste at North Island to be stored for at least a year; some mixed radioactive and hazardous waste could be kept there as long as ten. For the purely radioactive waste, there is no effective time limit for removal.

Because the base is a federal facility, and a military one at that, state and local scrutiny of the Navy's plans is limited. In its nuclear operations, including radioactive-waste storage and reactor operations, the Navy answers to no state or local regulators but rather to its own parent agency, the Department of Defense.

Where the state does come in involves two proposed hazardous-waste dumps -- and then only when waste is stored for longer than 30 days or is brought in from outside North Island. As a result, the permissible grounds on which objections can be made and under which outsiders can demand answers are limited.

Much of the public record can be found in dialogues conducted during state and federally mandated public hearings, in comments by outsiders who have some legal standing, and from the permit applications and supporting documentation. The facts often overlap or contradict themselves.

For instance, the federally required environmental impact statement for the overall homeporting project -- prepared by the Navy and certified as adequate by the Navy -- is based largely on the assumption that only one nuclear carrier would be based at North Island. Now, according to the Navy's latest plan, three are likely to be stationed there.

Yet, that same impact statement declared that dredging San Diego Harbor for around-the-clock access would not create any threat to public health or the environment. Two years after it was approved and dredging was underway for the larger nuclear ships, live ordnance and hazardous materials have showed up in the spoils.

The two hazardous-waste permits deal with two discrete types of waste: purely hazardous waste, that is, materials that are chemically or otherwise innately toxic; and mixed waste, hazardous waste that has been made radioactive by exposure to radiation.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control approved the Navy's hazardous-waste permit in December of 1997. The permit had an effective date of January 4, but an appeal was filed on January 2 by two individuals and the Environmental Health Coalition, a local nonprofit group that's been operating for 18 years and has an annual budget of nearly $1 million. The health coalition was the lead plaintiff in an earlier suit against the homeporting project, which was dismissed last fall. The coalition is arguing in its appeal of the hazardous-waste permit that the state made significant errors and should rescind it. The state expects to respond within 90 days.

Should the state approve the permit, North Island will have six times its present permitted hazardous-waste capacity and will lengthen the amount of time most of the waste may remain in storage from 90 days to a year. Just as important, North Island is now able to accept a much larger volume of hazardous waste from outside the base. The new permit also nearly doubles North Island's capacity for PCBs -- substances so poisonous their use is now banned -- to some 17,000 pounds. North Island is already the sole repository for PCB wastes generated by Navy operations in the region, since it is the only Navy facility with a PCB storage permit.

The Navy facility that the new permit applies to has actually been in operation since 1992, the year it was completed. Until now, however, the storage depot was exempt from state oversight because the Navy kept wastes there for 90 days or less and didn't accept material from outside North Island.

(On one occasion, the Navy concedes, the depot did accept waste from outside North Island -- from outside the country, in fact. Several years ago, a Navy research station in Antarctica ran out of waste-storage space, and the material was shipped to North Island on very short notice. "[The Toxic Substances Control agency] ... did not pursue the waste imported from Antarctica as a hazardous-waste import activity," was the agency's response to a public comment about the incident.)

The new hazardous-waste permit brings the total capacity for long-term storage of hazardous waste to 4384 55-gallon drums, or 236,500 gallons. All of that waste could originate from other sources in the state.

Toxic Substances Control has said it won't allow 90-day hazardous-waste storage within the newly permitted facility, but it has no power to keep the Navy from simply adding 90-day storage elsewhere as needed -- as long as the waste stored there is generated from North Island.

To judge from the Navy's own numbers, that expansion will probably be necessary soon.

Even before the homeporting, North Island generated 4 million pounds of hazardous waste each year, according to the Navy's environmental impact statement. That comes to 11,904 55-gallon drums, using conservative estimates, assuming the drums are filled with materials as heavy as water. Each nuclear carrier, the Navy says, generates nearly another 550,000 pounds a year. That's 1600 drums. Three carriers plus North Island's current activity would generate over 16,704 drums a year -- nearly four times what the new permit allows.

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