MONDAY November 17, 2003

Bennett sought to allow more waste in Utah


By Judy Fahys
(c)2003, The Salt Lake Tribune


    As long as four years ago, U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett was pushing for regulatory changes that would allow more radioactive waste to be disposed of in Utah.
    Bennett has said he did not know about specific wording in a pending federal spending bill that would allow highly contaminated uranium mill waste to go to a Tooele County landfill. However, federal documents show that the Utah Re publican had injected himself into the matter in 1999, when he urged federal nuclear regulators to reverse a policy that, in effect, blocked the privately owned and operated Envirocare of Utah from tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts.
    "Yeah, I've had a history of looking into this," Bennett said in an interview Friday.
    The senator's longtime push for reclassification is noteworthy in light of the recent controversy triggered by wording in the Energy and Water Appropriations bill still awaiting final votes in the House and Senate. A provision of the bill would reclassify highly contaminated waste from cleanup sites in Fernald, Ohio, and Niagara Falls, N.Y., to make it eligible to go to Envirocare, a mile-square hazardous and radioactive waste landfill in Tooele County.
    The issue has become highly charged politically in Utah, with Bennett and fellow Republicans Sen. Orrin Hatch and Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Cannon supporting the waste reclassification. Gov. Olene Walker, also a Republican, has come out strongly against it, as has Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson. The issue entered the GOP gubernatorial campaign Friday, with hopeful Jon Huntsman Jr.'s announcement that he is "adamantly opposed" to shipping the waste to Utah.
    Roots of the controversy go back to 1997, when Congress tinkered with the federal radioactive waste cleanup program. The changes treated the uranium mill discards, called tailings, differently depending on how they were being handled "pre-1978" and "post-1978."
    The complex system put the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in charge of tailings from facilities licensed in 1978 and after, and allowed the mildly radioactive waste to be disposed of at commercial sites licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and sometimes, even at ordinary landfills. These tailings were named after the section of the law that created them, 11e(2).
    Meanwhile, the so-called pre-1978 tailings remained under the control of the Energy Department and generally had to go to government-owned disposal facilities.
    The changes meant Envirocare, which previously had cornered the 11e (2) waste market, lost government contracts to competitors that could charge much less. The company began lobbying members of the Utah congressional delegation to change the situation.
    Bennett stepped into the fray when, on Oct. 22, 1999, he wrote to then-NRC Chairman Richard Meserve asking for his personal views about tailings disposal. Though Bennett never mentioned Envirocare by name, his questions suggest th at he wanted Meserve to allow pre-1978 tailings to go to commercial sites -- a reversal of the NRC's policy.
    A reversal would automatically steer more waste toward Envirocare, the only commercial site in the nation licensed by the NRC and approved by the Energy Department to dispose of the pre-1978 tailings waste.
    Noting that there are "no qualitative differences in the radioactive constituents of pre- and post-1978" sites, Bennett asked Meserve, "wouldn't you agree that the commission should rethink its reluctance to regulate pre-1978 material?"
    He also asked if, "as NRC chairman," Meserve would support legislation "that would make it absolutely clear" that the pre-1978 waste "should be regulated and disposed only at licensed sites?"
    Meserve, who had been the lead attorney in a major lawsuit about the classifications, responded the following March: "A legislative solution would be the most direct approach to clarifying the NRC's responsibilities" under the law that triggered the controversy.
    The week after Meserve's letter, Envirocare formally petitioned the NRC to reverse itself and assume control over the waste. But by the end of the year, the NRC again reaffirmed its stand that federal law did not allow it to regulate the pre-1978 waste.
    But the push to steer waste to licensed commercial disposal sites continued. And a main force was the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, of which Bennett is a member.
    Besides funding a gamut of water and energy projects, the subcommittee's spending bill for 2002 included wording that directed the Energy Department to look closer at commercially licensed disposal.
    "The conferees agree that the [Energy] Department, where cost-effective, should use existing federal contracts for the disposal of low-level and mixed low-level waste at commercial, off-site disposal facilities," said the House-Senate conference report, which the Utah senator helped draft.
    The Energy Department's Office of Environmental Management responded the following summer with a report that repeatedly praised Envirocare as the best bang for the taxpayer's buck.
    "Commercial disposal at Envirocare is a cost-effective alternative for some DOE waste and should be used to the maximum extent possible," the report said.
    Bennett said his 1999 letter to NRC was "an attempt to fix that" pre-1978 conundrum. He said he has "always been a little concerned" about the issue and that some radioactive waste managed by the DOE is "in regulatory no-man's land."
    "This is an industry the state of Utah has encouraged for 15 years," he said.
    Still, Bennett insisted he did not know about the reclassification in the pending Energy and Water Appropriations bill, which he helped write and that elsewhere included spending for the Central Utah Project and another item to which Bennett has devoted considerable attention, the lease to the LDS Church for the Martin's Cove historical park in Wyoming.
    Bennett called his lack of knowledge about the provision "an innocent series of coincidences." He said a congressional aide had checked with the state and heard no objections about reclassification, so the aide did not flag that provision when he passed it along to his replacement.
    Utah Department of Environmental Quality Deputy Director Bill Sinclair recalled telling the aide that state officials "don't take a position" on such questions as waste shipments -- not that they had no problems with the proposal.
    Bennett also said that, despite his longtime interest in the debate, the Energy Department did not enlist his support for the pending reclassification provision.
    "DOE did not call me," he said. "Nope, nobody told me about it."
    And, while the senator is conversant in the complexities of radioactive waste classification, he indicated Friday that he was unaware the waste from the Fernald and Niagara Falls cleanups would violate a state policy allowing only materials that are relatively low in hazardous radiation.
    Once diluted with a concretelike mix, the Ohio and New York waste would fall under Utah's so-called class C regulations that apply to waste originating from, for instance, a business. Class C waste is currently banned from Utah while state leaders decide on state policy. Even though the state wouldn't accept the diluted waste in parts of the Envirocare facility that it regulates, under the federal 11e(2) category, the waste could circumvent the state restriction and be allowed in the NRC-controlled part of the site.
    The Fernald and Niagara Falls tailings -- technologically enhanced waste from highly concentrated ore from Zaire -- contain roughly 500,000 picocuries of radium per gram of waste. Unlike mildly contaminated tailings found throughout the Colorado Plateau, these tailings are so contaminated they must be packaged by robots, diluted with concrete, packed in steel containers and buried under 30 feet of soil if disposed of in a low-level waste facility.
    Waste allowed under Envirocare's current NRC license can be no more than 4,000 picocuries of radium per gram of waste. In order to be able to accept the waste in an area set aside exclusively for uranium milling by-product waste that is not controlled by state regulators, the company is seeking permission from the NRC to accept up to 100,000 picocuries of radium per gram.
    Asked if he thought the Energy Department had pulled a fast one by trying to get this highly contaminated waste into Utah, Bennett replied: "I don't want to impugn anyone's motives."
    However, Jason Groenewold of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah criticized Bennett's involvement in the reclassification issue.
    "Having this language appear in a bill from Bennett's committee is no longer coincidental," he said.
    "Bennett wasn't asleep at the wheel, he was letting Envirocare drive," Groenewold added. "Utahns' interests didn't just take a back seat, they were thrown out the window."
   fahys@sltrib.com
   
   



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