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Slow-moving feds delay local nuke cleanup

(Editor's note: John Bonfatti wrote this post last week. Bonfatti died overnight Thursday.)

John F. Bonfatti writes about environmental issues for The News. Today he fills us in on a slow-moving project out west that will delay the cleanup of nuclear waste at West Valley.

Bonfatti It's called Yucca Mountain but it's more of a ridge, stretching for nearly five miles in the barren desert, not far from where the government conducted numerous nuclear bomb tests.

The potential of nuclear energy was demonstrated here. The answer to its chief pitfall -- what to do with the deadly waste it generates -- will also be located here, if the federal government has its way.

The government has already spent $9 billion to burrow the tunnels that are being used to try to test whether the proposed long-range nuclear waste repository will safely protect waste that will remain highly radioactive for thousands of years.

It was originally supposed to open 10 years ago, but has still not been given final approval.

The earliest date it could possibly open now is 2020 -- and that's probably optimistic, given the deep opposition to it in the state in which its located, Nevada.

As part of a deal it made with the utilities to build a repository, the government agreed to pay the generators of the waste between $300 million and $500 million a year if it wasn't open by 1998. That account remains open as long as there's no repository.

A few weeks ago, the government announced the cost of building and operating Yucca Mountain for 100 years would be $90 billion -- $19 billion more than an estimate made last year.

What's at stake for Western New York?

The high-level waste from the West Valley Demonstration Project is destined for the facility. If it's not built, that waste will almost certainly remain on site in Cattaraugus County.

Nuclear plants don't produce the carbon-based pollution of coal and gas-fired electricity plants do, so some energy analysts believe the country may soon have no choice but to add more nuclear power to our energy profile because.

But the saga of Yucca Mountain shows nuclear plants have their own pollution issues -- and that's not even considering the environmental impacts of accidents like the ones at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Should we be looking at producing more nuclear energy, which now accounts for 20 percent of the U.S. needs? If so, what should we do with the waste?

Problems with pensions

News investigative reporter Mary B. Pasciak recently did an eye-opening series on sky-high public pensions. Today she expands on those findings in this guest post.

We wrote recently about the pension-fattening lump sums that some teachers and administrators get when they cash in unused sick days and vacation time when they retire. In some cases, retirees end up with a pension -- free of state income tax -- that's as big as their paycheck was while they were working.

Eventually, those sweetheart deals will be phased out; only people who started teaching before June 1971 can count on those lump sums when the state calculates their pensions.

That doesn't mean taxpayers are off the hook, though.

In many places, teachers and administrators will still be able to cash in their unused sick time. But instead of getting a huge check when they retire -- which then would pump up their pension -- hundreds of retirees will be getting tens of thousands of dollars set aside so they can purchase health insurance many years after they retire.

Nowhere does this type of contract provision seem more lucrative than in Depew.

For years, employees could collect as much as $110,000 when they retired, when they cashed in unused sick time.

This summer, the deal got even better. Now, for teachers who cash in the maximum of 420 sick days, the district pays out $174,000, deposited into a tax-sheltered account.

Superintendent Kimberly Mueller, who has been in the district for one year, acknowledged that Depew's teachers contract is among the most generous around for retirees.

"It was just since time began that this was how they compensated employees in Depew," she said.

Tomorrow: John F. Bonfatti on bad news for the West Valley cleanup.

Housing activists remain skeptical of City Hall

My guest post for today comes from Phil Fairbanks, who has written extensively about city housing issues, including a recent investigation of vacant housing. I asked Phil about the fallout since his series ran.

As you can probably guess, the response has varied widely, although the large, large majority of the people who contacted me saw the series as eye-opening confirmation of an immense challenge facing the city.

Perhaps the most telling reaction came at a recent Common Council hearing on how the city should use state housing funds. Speaker after speaker called for a more thoughtful and comprehensive approach to rebuilding the city's neighborhoods.

What people want is more than than just demolitions. Yes, there are thousands of houses that need to come down, but what's missing in many neighborhoods is a plan, a vision for what comes next.

There's a growing frustration with City Hall and what many housing advocates see as its inability to deal with a problem as big as vacant housing.

Many also wonder if the Brown administration is truly interested in working with groups that could help. They point to the land banking bill passed by the state legislature and now headed to Gov. David Paterson.

The city, as well as the state Conference of Mayors, claims the bill fails to address their unique problems. They've asked Paterson to veto it.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen groups and individuals, including the University at Buffalo's Regional Institute, have voiced support for the bill.

Tomorrow: Mary Pasciak writes about some of the most outrageous pension abuses she has uncovered.

Familiar names on the police blotter

For this last week of August, five of my colleagues are providing guest posts on topics they've written on of late. Today, we hear from Vanessa Thomas, who has covered Buffalo police for six years. During that time, she's read thousands of crime incident reports, and I asked her to write about what she's found most striking.

Vanessa_thomas The most striking part about the crime incident reports I read is that I recognize some of the names of these criminals.

Some of these reports describe crimes  -- shootings, homicides, burglaries, fist fights, domestic violence, etc. -- that were so horrifyingly violent that I was haunted in my sleep on a few rare occasions.

It's frightening to read reports about the same people being arrested again and again, and the same people being shot time after time.

The revolving door of our criminal justice system has meant that I can rattle off the names of Buffalo's most notorious convicts and thugs, much like folks can recite their list of friends.

One of those names ingrained on my brain is Larry Kemp, a 25-year-old Buffalo man, who narrowly escaped death for years.

Kemp had been shot three times over a period of three years -- but it was the fourth shooting on Sept. 23, 2007, that claimed his young life.

Kemp had been virtually a living miracle, surviving a gunshot wound to his head and two separate shots to his neck during previous incidents.

I wrote about two of those shootings, including the article about his death.

It's no secret that Kemp was well known to police; he had a felony conviction for criminal possession of a weapon, but he also had family members who loved him.

Buffalo's streets can be a mean place for those dabbling in the criminal underworld.

Many criminals think they're invincible. They're not. I've written the stories to prove it.

Tomorrow: Phil Fairbanks follows up on his recent investigation into the city's runaway vacant housing problem.

Shrinking the county Legislature

For this last week of August, I'm turning to five of my colleagues who have graciously agreed to provide guest posts on topics they've written on of late. We're starting off with Matt Spina, who covers Erie County government. I asked Matt to write about the prospects of a proposal to shrink the Erie County Legislature.

Spina The prospects for a nine-member Legislature are most uncertain.

A Democratic lawmaker, Thomas A. Loughran of Amherst, has placed the challenge before all 15 lawmakers. If a majority accept it, the proposal would go to voters in November 2009, when the lawmakers are seeking re-election.

Loughran says the proposal would be the year's foremost campaign issue. Among the 15, Loughran seemed most impressed by civic activist Kevin Gaughan's call for distressed Erie County to take the sickle to its overgrown thicket of local politicians.

As you might guess, Loughran's proposal makes some lawmakers nervous. As of right now, it has support from just three or four other legislators. It needs eight to pass. A proposal by Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli might derail it.

Marinelli is creating a study commission that will look at length of terms, powers of legislators and the number of legislators, among other things. It would be appointed solely by her and a few other lawmakers. And its findings would have to be accepted by the Legislature as a whole before being put to voters.

In other words the Legislature if it wished -- and this is a cynical view -- could cherry-pick the most self-serving changes recommended by the commission and put them before voters, then discard the rest.

Oh yes, there probably would not be a referendum until 2010, a non-election year for lawmakers.

Marinelli says the call for a smaller legislature should be evaluated holistically, against other reforms that have been broached over the years. That's why she does not want to rush to shrink the legislature.

Here are the lawmakers who, so far, have endorsed the creation of a study commission: Edward A. Rath III, R-Amherst; Robert B. Reynolds, D-Hamburg; Timothy M. Wroblewski, D-Cheektowaga. They are willing to wait while it does its work.

And the lawmakers who have endorsed a nine-member Legislature: John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park; Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst; and Kathy Konst, D-Lancaster.

It will be up to Loughran and Gaughan to win more votes for their idea. Expect some bargaining. [If not nine, how about 11? 13?]

But Marinelli need not win any votes to create the commission. Her powers as Legislature chairwoman let her do it on her own.

Tomorrow: Vanessa Thomas writes about what what she finds most striking in the police blotter.