Bishop, Envirocare say they'll wait for state decision on Fernald waste

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By PATTY HENETZ

Associated Press Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Envirocare of Utah on Tuesday announced that it would not immediately decide whether to pursue storing 15,000 tons of highly concentrated radioactive waste from a former nuclear weapons plant in Ohio.

Acting on a request from Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Envirocare spokesman Tim Barney said company would wait until a legislative task force formed to study hazardous waste matters has reviewed the Fernald, Ohio, proposal.

Deferring to the task force would allow the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to transfer oversight of so-called ''byproduct material'' to Utah, ensuring that the state would oversee any proposed changes to Envirocare's operating licenses necessary if the company is to receive the waste.

''We'd rather work with the state than against the state,'' Barney said.

Bishop said he has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reopen and extend the public comment period on amending Envirocare's license and on the Fernald waste issue as it applies to Utah.

He also has asked the NRC not to get in the way of the state's pending new status as an ''agreement state,'' which means state officials - not federal - would make final decisions on what hazardous waste would be allowed in Utah. That status is expected early next year.

Bishop's request came after the House-Senate Conference Committee last week inserted in its $27.33 billion 2004 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill language that reclassified the Fernald waste as ''byproduct material.'' Without the reclassification, the waste would have been banned in Utah and instead shipped to the Nevada Test Site.

The conference committee's action came as a surprise to Envirocare, Bishop and critics of reclassification, including Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who said he had been focusing on language Bishop had proposed to insert in a broad energy bill that hasn't been written yet.

The $27.33 billion appropriations bill, however, cannot be amended and will go to the House and Senate as early as next week for final passage.

Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and member of the conference committee that finalized the spending bill issued a statement denying involvement with the reclassification.

''Clearly I had nothing to do with this language being added to the bill,'' he said. ''It was put there by another senator at the request of the administration. I didn't discover it until after the controversy surrounding (Congressman) Bishop's letter.''

The controversy erupted in October, leading to angry confrontations with opponents who shouted at Bishop during meetings, demanding that he resign or cut ties with Envirocare. Bishop is a former Envirocare lobbyist, but says he has no current ties with the company, which is in his 1st Congressional District.

The protests followed reports that Bishop in July signed a letter urging the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman to include the reclassification in the energy bill. Bishop's letter said that the Fernald waste's current definition ''deprives a significant Utah company of additional revenue.''

The day after Bishop wrote his letter, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham sent similar requests to House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Vice President Dick Cheney, who is Senate president. The Energy Department has been working on the cleanup since 1989, when Fernald stopped processing nuclear fuel for bomb-making plants.

Last month, Matheson asked congressional leaders to remove the provision from the energy bill. Rep. Chris Cannon and Sen. Orrin Hatch refused. Bennett said he needed more information to decide.

Stung by his critics' vehemence, Bishop last week said he would reconsider his support for shipping the Fernald waste to Utah if the tailings turn out to be ''hotter'' than represented to him. He also said in a letter to supporters that the criticism was part of a smear by ''the radical environmentalist community and their media sponsors.''

Defending Bishop, the freshman congressman's spokesman, Scott Parker, on Tuesday said Bishop was only doing what President Bush's administration and the federal Energy Department asked of him. ''This was not our proposal, it never has been, it never was,'' Parker said.

Meanwhile, two Ohio Republicans, Sen. George Voinovich and Rep. David L. Hobson, maneuvered the reclassification language to the appropriations bill.

Barney said Energy Department representatives in July told Envirocare the agency would pursue the reclassification proposal via ''multiple avenues.''

But the Energy Department didn't give Bishop the same heads-up, his spokesman said.

Both former Gov. Mike Leavitt, now chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Gov. Olene Walker, who replaced Leavitt last week, have said they oppose bringing hotter waste to Utah.

Envirocare expects to compete for the Fernald waste contract with a federal facility and at least three other contractors: Lakewood, Colo.-based Cotter Corp.; Waste Control Specialists of Andrews, Texas; and International Uranium Corp. through its White Mesa mill in Blanding, Utah.

AP-WS-11-11-03 2201EST