TUESDAY November 11, 2003

Skids greased for Utah waste


By Judy Fahys
The Salt Lake Tribune


    Congress is poised to clear the way for highly contaminated Superfund waste from Ohio to come to Utah along with another big surprise -- more, similarly hot radioactive waste from a site in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
    The move is being accomplished in an energy and water spending bill, which is headed for the floor of the House of Representatives next week and then a vote in the Senate. The bill came out of a House-Senate conference committee, meaning it must be voted up or down without any amendments. It is likely to pass because it includes appropriations for numerous projects nationwide, including funding for the Central Utah Water Project and the Martin's Cove Mormon historic park in Wyoming.
    The provision is almost identical to one Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, pushed for insertion in a bill on energy policy, which is still locked in a conference committee.
    Tucked into the spending bill at the request of two lawmakers from Ohio, location of the Fernald Superfund site, is a provision that would reclassify intensely radioactive waste from two Department of Energy waste cleanups, the one in Ohio and the newly included New York effort.
    The language of the bill had gone unnoticed. From the start, the wording was in the original Senate version of the spending bill, a product of the appropriations subcommittee on which U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, sits. Bennett was on the House-Senate committee that crafted the compromise.
    "Clearly I had nothing to do with this language being added to the bill," Bennett said in a statement Monday. "It was put there by another senator at the request of the [Bush] administration."
    The senator said he learned nothing about the reclassification until a flap arose last month after The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Bishop asked Republicans writing the compromise energy bill last summer to include the same reclassification of the Ohio waste.
    On Monday, congressional aides said that two Ohio lawmakers had asked for the wording in the appropriations bill to cover both cleanups.
    Marnie Funk, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said Rep. David L. Hobson, an Ohio Republican who represents an area between the suburbs of Dayton and Columbus, insisted on the Niagara Falls provision.
    And, when asked about the waste reclassification in the spending bill, a spokeswoman for Ohio Sen. Michael DeWine's office said: "That language is [Ohio Republican] Sen. [George] Voinovich's idea."
    Neither of the Ohio lawmakers was available for comment late Monday.
    Bob Alvarez, a senior policy adviser in the Energy Department during the Clinton administration, said congressional practice frowns upon lawmakers making policy changes -- such as the waste reclassification -- in a spending bill. He pointed out conferees condemned the Energy Department's handling of the matter in an unusual paragraph of a report accompanying the spending bill.
    "The conferees strongly object to the department sending forth its contractors to advocate for legislative changes that are necessary to execute accelerated cleanup plans, as was apparently the case" with reclassifying the Fernald waste, the lawmakers wrote, stopping short of actually killing the reclassification.
    Alvarez said he doubted that Bennett, an energy and water appropriations subcommittee member, or even U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, had not been informed about the reclassifications as a matter of common congressional courtesy.
    "A provision like this would not be allowed to go through without the senators' approval," he said.
    The spending bill has been approved by the House-Senate conference committee. The House is expected to take it up when it returns to Washington next week.
    One reason the congressional maneuvering is so important is that waste as concentrated as that at Fernald and Niagara Falls is outlawed in Utah. Under a bill passed by the state Legislature last year, Utah prohibits disposal of low-level radioactive waste labeled "Class B or C," which contains materials with significantly greater potential long-term hazards to people and the environment than waste currently allowed in Utah.
    But the reclassified waste could still come to Utah because part of Envirocare, the Utah hazardous waste company, is controlled by the federal government rather than the state. That part of the Envirocare facility is set aside for "11e(2) byproduct material" that normally is only mildly radioactive. But with the new congressional reclassification, the exceptionally hazardous Fernald and Niagara Falls waste could skirt the state moratorium.
    Utah is trying to gain control over the federal section of the site and is expected to have that authority by next spring. While it is possible that the state may be able to block the waste once it gets that authority, officials have not indicated they intend to do so.
    Envirocare is taking an additional, crucial step toward getting permission to take the hotter waste. It is seeking a permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to accept uranium mill byproducts with higher concentrations of radium.
    Under its current license, it can dispose of material that contains 4,000 picocuries of radium per gram, a measure of its radioactive concentration. The company is petitioning the NRC for permission to allow up to 100,000 picocuries radium per gram.
    In its current state, the waste at Fernald and Niagara Falls is so radioactive it would not qualify to go to any of the nation's three commercial low-level radioactive waste landfills, which allow concentrations of no more than 100,000 picocuries per gram.
    Based on its long-term potential hazard to the environment, that waste would have to be entombed underground in government-run disposal facilities. Contractors at the two cleanup sites will have to dilute it to meet standards for a low-level waste facility.
    For the 8,900 cubic yards of Fernald waste, that means four parts of cement for every part of sludge. The Ohio waste contains up to 391,000 picocuries of radium for each gram of waste.
    For the 4,000 cubic yards of Niagara Falls waste, a dilution of 5 parts of cement for every part of waste would be needed.
    The Energy Department has pushed aggressively for the reclassification because it has promised Congress to accelerate clean up of waste sites. The deadline for the Fernald waste is three years away, and rail shipments to Envirocare provide the Fernald site contractor's only chance of meeting that deadline and collecting a $215 million incentive bonus from the Energy Department.
    Bishop, who once worked as a state legislative lobbyist for Envirocare, said a federal lobbyist for that company drafted the July letter requesting the reclassification from House leaders. U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has urged congressional leaders to kill the reclassification.
    "It's done," Matheson lamented Monday, "and it's going to go to the floor for a vote" and will pass.
    Meanwhile, Bennett is looking to state regulators to decide the issue.
    "Long before this material can be made ready for shipment, Utah state officials will gain full authority to say yes or no on whether it will be allowed in the state," he said, noting that he had consulted "the relevant state experts."
    "They told me they had no objections," Bennett said. "If they raise safety objections in the future, I will oppose its coming to Utah as vigorously as possible."
    Claire Geddes, director of Utah Legislative Watch, and Jason Groenewold of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, attacked Bennett and Bishop for their handling of the issue.
    "With friends like Sen. Bennett and Rep. Bishop, Utah doesn't need any enemies," they said in a statement. "How this provision cleared Bennett's committee is beyond belief."
    They concluded: "It would be nice to have congressmen who were more concerned with the health and well-being of Utahns rather than Envirocare's profits."
    fahys@sltrib.com
   



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