Tribune Editorial: Timid Herbert washes his hands of EnergySolutions bill

FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2018, file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Herbert says he backs a state legislative push to ban some types of gay conversion therapy that he called "barbaric" but added that defining what constitutes conversion therapy is key. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

“When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.”

Matthew 27:24 (King James Version)

The process that Gov. Gary Herbert used to allow House Bill 220 — the measure opening the door to the eternal storage of ever-more-dangerous substances at the EnergySolutions facility in Tooele County — to become law without his assent is firmly established in the Utah Constitution.

The provision allowing a bill to become law without the chief executive’s signature, if he or she just does nothing for a set period of time, is also found in the Constitution of the United States, and is common in the charters of other states.

It’s still a pretty cowardly way to resolve such an important issue.

Herbert does not accept campaign contributions from EnergySolutions. But he didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that many of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature do, resorting, as politicians often do, to active denial of the fact that the purchase of access influences the outcome of the legislative process.

The governor also clung to a rather un-Utah provision of the bill to justify his non-action action.

As the state’s environmental bureaucracy considers whether to allow EnergySolutions to store such nasty stuff as depleted uranium — which starts out relatively cool and only gets more dangerous over the millennia — the new law requires the state and the company to strike a deal with the U.S. Department of Energy. That deal must commit the feds to take title to the particular bit of land where the depleted uranium will be stored, and to assume responsibility for its safe care come — and long after — the inevitable day that EnergySolutions is out of business.

Trusting the federal government to handle a problem that is beyond Utah’s competency is not, generally, something that is popular among this state’s political class. But it is what Herbert clings to in allowing the bill to take effect.

Because the really, really dangerous part of the waste’s life cycle may arise only after the state of Utah, the United States, the United Federation of Planets and the solar system itself have all passed into history, there is an argument to be made that this is all much ado about nothing.

But taking this step toward identifying Utah as a willing dump for the nation’s most dangerous garbage is something that will have its impact right away. It will seriously undermine the image the state should be cultivating for itself, that of an inviting and accessible vista of beautiful public lands.

It was not a good idea. And Utah’s best hope for the future is that the federal government will refuse to take part in such a ridiculous scheme.