05/28/2003 11:00PM

Battles with federal government continue


The state of Nevada has been used and abused for a long time.

Because it was granted statehood during the Civil War, Nevada earned the nickname "Battle Born," but if the truth be told, it was really because of a political battle.

As the Union fought the Confederacy, President Abraham Lincoln was preparing for re-election in 1864. As revered as he was, Lincoln was still a politician, and the No. 1 goal of every politician is to keep his job.

While the Southern states were obviously against him, Lincoln was also losing support because the Northern states were getting frustrated at the lack of progress and loss of lives. A lot of people were calling for peace, and that always works against the incumbent.

The Territory of Nevada supported the North, so the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C., had a great idea: Hey, let's give statehood to Nevada and collect what could be very critical electoral votes for Lincoln.

So, on Oct. 31, 1864, Nevada became a state, just days before the November election. As it turned out, Gen. Sherman took Atlanta in September of that year and the Union looked assured of victory. Lincoln got 212 of the 233 possible electoral votes.

The Nevada Legislature adopted the slogan, "All for our country." But that loyalty hasn't been repaid. In fact, the federal government has often treated Nevada like the black sheep of the family, probably because of Nevadans' live-and-let live, decadent lifestyle.

Before 1950, most atomic tests were conducted in the Pacific Ocean. President Harry S. Truman and the powers-that-be in Washington decided: Hey, let's drop the bombs in the Nevada desert.

From 1951 to 1962, there were 126 so-called "atmospheric tests" at the Nevada Test Site.

In the 1970's and 1980's, the federal government started hearing concerns about what to do with the waste from the country's nuclear power plants and from military operations. In 1987, after considering and dismissing other alternatives, the powers-that-be decided: Hey, let's ship it all to Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Sure, why not. Nevada: America's dumping ground.

Since then, there has been many concerns about the Yucca Mountain Project and its suitability as a geologically safe storage facility. Nevada obviously fought this, but when every other state didn't want the stuff in its backyard, it was hard to garner support.

During the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush campaigned heavily in Nevada, a pivotal state in his race with Al Gore. Bush was asked often about Yucca Mountain and he promised that any decision would be based on "sound science."

Nevada's voters believed him and the state's four electoral votes helped put Bush in the White House (without Nevada's votes, the ballot snafu in Florida would have been moot). When Bush subsequently put his support behind the Yucca Mountain Project despite all its problems, Nevada was outraged for being lied to. But it was probably a lack of communication: what Bush was obviously referring to was not "sound science" as much as political science.

So the Yucca Mountain Project moves on, but Nevada continues to fight it. On Wednesday, at the Clark County Government Center, U.S. Senators Harry Reid and John Ensign held a field hearing for the Senate's Energy and Water Subcommittee on quality assurance problems at Yucca Mountain.

Witnesses included Bill Belke, a retired former senior on-site representative for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Robin Nazzaro, director of natural resources and environment for the General Accounting Office, which has criticized the Department of Energy of not fixing problems at Yucca Mountain; and Allison MacFarlane, co-director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has studied the Yucca Mountain Project in depth. All of them talked about problems with the feasibility of the site and concerns about problems that haven't been fixed in a timely fashion.

But the biggest news (and the biggest slap in the face for Nevadans) came from the senators' claim that two other witnesses weren't present because of pressure from their bosses at the Department of Energy. For the past year, there have been stories in the local media about people who reported problems at Yucca Mountain and were told to be quiet or reassigned to other jobs.

"The Department of Energy has had its head in the sand all along" about the facility not meeting the DOE's own requirements, Reid said. "But all that is a drop in the bucket compared to what I've seen in the past few months."

One such person was Robert Clark, former DOE quality assurance director. Reid said that he sent a letter to DOE's director at Yucca Mountain, Dr. Margaret Chu, to get former DOE quality assurance director Robert Clark to testify at Wednesday's hearing. "Her response was, that 'he's not in a position to know anything about that.' Well, of course he isn't since he was transferred."

The CBS TV program "60 Minutes" is researching a piece that the senators hope will bring this issue more national prominence.

Another issue that continues to hover over Nevada is the Amateur Sports Integrity Act of Sen. John McCain. It is meant to outlaw legal sports betting.

Reid and Ensign are much more confident in defeating that bill. They did it in 2001 when it passed out of McCain's Senate Commerce Committee on a lukewarm 10-10 tie vote and never reached the Senate floor.

"We've got that thing beat," said Commerce Committee member Ensign on Wednesday. "We've got the votes to kill it, and I don't have to spend as much time on it."

The most recent snub of Nevada was the Department of Homeland Security not including Las Vegas on its list of 30 target cities to receive federal funding in the fight against terrorism. That, despite the fact that a recent trial in Detroit included testimony that terrorists referred to Las Vegas as the "City of Satan," and was considered a potential target.

But such is the life of the black sheep of the family. Nevada continues to fight for its right to party.

As one more state slogan from Nevada's website at www.nv.gov states: "Bring it on." The state is battle-born and battle tested.