Originally created 06/19/02

Judge bans Hodges' blockade

AIKEN - Gov. Jim Hodges' fight to stop planned plutonium shipments into Savannah River Site effectively ended Tuesday when a federal judge banned him from blocking delivery trucks.

U.S. District Court Judge Cameron Currie called any such blockade unconstitutional. Mr. Hodges has said he would not defy court orders.

After his request for an injunction against the U.S. Department of Energy failed, the governor declared a state of emergency Friday and had state troopers check trucks entering the federal nuclear weapons site.

The shipments, which could begin Saturday, are not expected to be impeded.

The ruling came at the Department of Energy's request, which the judge initially denied last week.

Judge Currie said Thursday that although she believed a blockade would be unconstitutional, she wouldn't sign an order stating such because she had assurances from the governor he wouldn't do anything illegal.

She asked the governor to notify the court if he was ordering a blockade. The notification never came, despite actions Friday at the gates of SRS.

The judge's harshly worded order Tuesday showed her response:

"I took Governor Hodges at his word, and I now see this was a mistake," the judge said. "It is a sad day for South Carolina when a governor who has taken an oath as an officer of the state and as a lawyer to uphold the state and the United States constitutions must be ordered to obey it."

Judge Currie voided the governor's executive order and banned Mr. Hodges or any of his successors from impeding the shipments.

Mr. Hodges did not attend Tuesday's 15-minute hearing. His office said he had to sit as the chairman of the Budget and Control Board in Columbia.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, though, the governor said he would continue the fight in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and if needed, the U.S. Supreme Court.

"As I've said all along, I'll respect the court's order," he said. "Against our will, the blockade is over. The courts have ended it. And the bureaucrats at the Department of Energy have prevailed for the moment."

Observers say the 4th Circuit isn't likely to rule in the governor's favor because of its conservative leanings and what it sees as the governor's thin legal argument.

Last Thursday, Judge Currie dismissed Mr. Hodges' claim that the DOE didn't properly study the environmental impact of long-term storage of plutonium at SRS.

U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, said Tuesday that it was time for the governor to abandon his "ill-conceived and risky" court strategy.

Mr. Graham continues to back legislation sponsored by himself and Sen. Strom Thurmond that would levy fines against the DOE if the plutonium is stored in South Carolina long term.

The DOE is expected to ship 6 tons of plutonium from Rocky Flats, its former nuclear weapons facility near Boulder, Colo. In all, about 34 tons of plutonium will be sent to SRS during the next 18 months.

Mr. Hodges argued the DOE was breaking its promise to fund and build a mixed-oxide facility that would make the plutonium usable in nuclear power plants.

The broken promise, the governor said, would make his state a dumping ground.

"I don't apologize for our efforts, our suit, or our blockade. I make no excuses. The federal government broke its promises," he said in a statement. "If you or I give our word and then violate it, we get in trouble. But these rules apparently don't apply to the federal government."

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or matthew.boedy@augustachronicle.com.

To read U.S. District Court Judge Cameron Currie's complete ruling, go to www.scd.uscourts.gov/Opinions


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