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
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
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
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
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
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."