WEDNESDAY November 12, 2003

Walker to take up waste fight


By Judy Fahys
The Salt Lake Tribune


    Gov. Olene Walker vowed Tuesday to do whatever she can to block trainloads of highly contaminated waste the U.S. Energy Department wants to send to Utah.
    "I'm very much opposed to it coming to Utah," Walker said in an interview, adding that the state already has shouldered more than its share of the nation's nuclear waste disposal problem.
    The newly inaugurated governor's stand puts her administration on a different track from that of Republican members of the state's congressional delegation over the possibility that highly radioactive waste from federal cleanup projects in Fernald, Ohio, and Niagara Falls, N.Y., will be disposed of at the privately owned Envirocare hazardous materials dump in Tooele County.
    A provision in an appropriations bill in Congress would change the classification of the Ohio and New York waste to allow it to be disposed of at Envirocare. The proposal involves 8,900 cubic yards of concentrated radium waste from the Department of Energy's Fernald Superfund cleanup and 4,000 cubic yards of even hotter waste from Niagara Falls.
    If the federal law is not changed, waste from both sites will be barred from disposal in Utah because of its high radioactivity and long period of toxicity.
    Material as concentrated and long-lived as this waste is banned in Utah if it comes from a commercial source such as a nuclear power plant. But because of a quirk in federal law, it will be eligible to go to Envirocare if Congress simply reclassifies it and the company receives a change in its federal license.
    Reacting to the controversy created in Utah by the proposal, U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett and U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop said they will do what they can to facilitate state oversight of the Energy Department waste. But they also said they backed Utah's radioactive waste disposal industry.
    Walker and Bennett said they were shocked to learn about wording in the congressional spending bill now awaiting a vote in the U.S. House.
    "Had we been alerted," Walker said, "I'm certain we would have immediately taken action to stop it."
    A House-Senate conference committee on Friday dispatched the energy and water appropriations bill for final approval on a no-amendments vote.
    Bennett, a member of the appropriations subcommittee that wrote the bill and the conference committee that finalized it, insisted again Tuesday that he did not know beforehand about the provision in the appropriations bill. He blamed a staff member's oversight for allowing the reclassification to go forward without garnering attention from Utah lawmakers.
    "There were apologies all around," Bennett said, "but we are where we are."
    It's unlikely that Utahns in Congress can do anything to have the reclassification removed from the bill, he said. Nonetheless, Bennett said he spoke to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., about using an omnibus spending bill that lawmakers are talking about to "amend, ameliorate or delay" the provision.
    "My goal is simply to delay the whole process until we can get a handle on what's going on," he said.
    Envirocare also is seeking approval by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to accept waste with radium 25 times more concentrated than the company is currently permitted.
    The Utah Division of Radiation Control has been working for more than two years to assume authority over the federally licensed portion of Envirocare and expects to receive it by spring. Bennett, like Bishop, says the shift will allow the state some control over the federal portion of the site.
    "Nobody in the federal government is forcing Utah to take this," said Bennett, describing Envirocare as a state-approved business that provides important jobs and pumps taxes into the state economy. "This is a case of a Utah industry applying for a product and the people in Utah deciding it."
    Bishop spent much of Tuesday's meeting with selected news media to tout an agreement with Envirocare. He did not respond to a request for an interview from The Salt Lake Tribune.
    But Bishop did issue a news release that said he had asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reopen the public comment period on Envirocare's license request and to facilitate Utah's efforts to gain control over the waste disposal program. He also announced that Envirocare, a company for whom he was a state legislative lobbyist a few years ago, would agree not to pursue the Fernald contract until Utah gets the oversight authority.
    The company said in a news release that it would wait until a legislative task force completes its review of the state's hazardous waste disposal policy next year concerning whether hotter waste labeled class B and class C should be allowed.
    The agreement, the company said, was prompted by Bishop's request and "in light of the misinformation that has been spread by a few activist groups through the media."
    "This decision will eliminate the confusion and allow all to be heard by the task force, the Utah Division of Radiation Control, and the NRC," said Tim Barney, senior vice president of Envirocare. "It will provide an opportunity to clear the air and give the public more confidence in the process."
    U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat, is the only member of the Utah delegation who has asked congressional leaders to stop the reclassification.
    Bishop last summer urged leaders to add a similar provision to a separate energy policy bill. He has said an Envirocare lobbyist penned the letter for him but emphasized that the Energy Department was seeking the change and sees the prospect of sending the Ohio waste to Utah as the cheapest, safest possible option.
    In the five weeks since the reclassification came to light, there has been an outcry by Utah environmental and government watchdog groups.
    Bishop asserted in his news release that the Energy Department proposal "has merit and is safer for Utahns."
    "This arrangement basically does two things," he said. "It allows for more time for public comment and expert opinion to be gathered, and it empowers the state of Utah to control its own destiny when it comes to radioactive waste."
    Walker said she was not certain what could be done to stop the waste, but she noted there was "concern" the congressional delegation had not spotted the reclassification sooner. She said she has spoken about the issue with Bennett.
    "Clearly," said the governor, "we need to have a meeting with all of them so we can get on the same page."
   As Congress was developing the nation's policy for radioactive waste, it evidently never anticipated the intensity of the uranium mill tailings now being stored at Fernald and Niagara Falls. The uranium ore came from what is now Congo and was 12 to 14 times stronger than ore mined on the Colorado Plateau.
    The waste at both sites is unusually potent, too. While state law allows concentrations of just 10,000 picocuries of radium per gram of waste, the Fernald waste averages 477,000 picocuries radium per gram, and the Niagara Falls waste is 520,000 picocuries radium per gram. Picocuries per gram is a measure of the concentration of radiation.
    After it is blended with concrete and packed in carbon steel containers, the waste is expected to have a concentration of up to 100,000 picocuries radium per gram, the level allowed under the state's "class C" category for low-level waste.
    But Utah lawmakers have placed a moratorium on class C waste in Utah through next year. Envirocare has withdrawn its license application to accept class B and class C waste pending a decision by a state radioactive waste task force now reviewing current state policy.
    Bennett said Tuesday that nuclear waste is a national problem, in part because Americans depend on reactors for about 20 percent of their electricity. He said the state opened the door for Utah's radioactive waste disposal industry when it first allowed Envirocare to open, even though lawmakers did not establish a system for deciding on such facilities until four years later.
    When asked what state constituency he was being an advocate for in his handling of the waste issue, Bennett said: "I'm not fighting for or against anyone in this matter. . . . I am saying I don't necessarily want to shut that industry down."
    fahys@sltrib.com
   
   



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