WEDNESDAY November 19, 2003

Envirocare pulls waste bid

By Judy Fahys,
The Salt Lake Tribune

    Bowing to growing political momentum, Envirocare of Utah said late Tuesday it was withdrawing a federal application to accept more highly concentrated radioactive waste at its Tooele County landfill from cleanup si tes in Ohio and New York.
    Envirocare announced it was withdrawing its application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license change that the company needed to qualify as a disposal site for the uranium mill tailings.
    The company said its move was part corporate citizenship and part business reality: To meet the federal government's cleanup schedule in Ohio, Envirocare would have been forced to renege on its commitment to state leaders to wait for state approval of the $14 million disposal project.
    "There is no point in moving forward if it's not going to work," said Envirocare Vice President Tim Barney, restating the company's belief it can safely dispose of the highly concentrated waste.
    The decision came after religious and other community leaders -- including a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve -- joined the chorus of those opposing shipments of trainloads of nuclear waste to Utah from the fede rally controlled sites in Ohio and New York.
    State lawmakers also weighed in, with the Legislature's Hazardous Waste Task Force backing a bill that would put Utah political leaders in charge of deciding whether the disposal of "hotter" radioactive waste should be allowed. Ch ances appear good for passage, said House Speaker Marty Stephens, who also said he opposes the Ohio and New York waste coming to Utah.
    "We likely will address this in the upcoming Legislature. I think there would be broad support" for the bill, Stephens said in an interview.
    The developments occurred even as the U.S. House on Tuesday approved two bills that would relabel uranium mill wastes so they could be disposed of at Envirocare's landfill 80 miles west of Salt Lake City.
    Momentum built against the waste proposal when religious, civic and business leaders who make up the Alliance for Unity issued a news release opposing the storage of waste with higher radioactivity levels than current laws allow. The group includes Elder M. Russell Ballard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
    Utah industrialist and alliance co-chairman Jon Huntsman said he has never seen alliance members vote contrary to the desires of the institutions they represent.
    "I doubt any religious leader would put their name on this unless they had the backing of their institution," said Huntsman, who formed the alliance with Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson more than two years ago.
    Huntsman said that through Ballard, the church was probably weighing in on the issue. Church leaders declined comment Tuesday.
    Huntsman said that taking a position on the hotter nuclear waste issue fits within the alliance's mission statement, which includes a commitment to make Utah "a place where diverse people work together to solve community problems ."
    Jason Groenewold of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, an opponent of the reclassification, attributed Envirocare's decision to religious, political, business and community leaders speaking out against the waste proposal.
    "They ultimately caved to political pressure," Groenewold said of Envirocare. "The writing was on the wall that to take this waste would have meant going counter to the entire state."
    Meanwhile, in Utah's Capitol, elected leaders of the Republican-controlled Utah House, like the task force, adopted a position favoring state control over decisions on allowing radioactive materials more hazardous than those alrea dy permitted.
    The state has been trying for more than two years to get regulatory authority over the portion of Envirocare that is currently overseen by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and is expected to get that authority by next spring .
    "Even if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates the waste, we ought to have a law and look at ways that our Department of Environmental Quality would have to certify that it would be safe," Stephens said in explaining the sta nd he endorses, along with Majority Leader Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, and Majority Whip Jeff Alexander, R-Provo.
    Before the Envirocare announcement, the legislative task force also backed the idea of sending a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that says the state wants a voice in the decision on the company's federal license.
    Sen. Bev Evans, R-Altamont, also proffered a successful task force motion urging the full Legislature to go no further on the subject of radioactive waste controls until the task force completes its policy on hotter so-called Clas s B and Class C waste around the time of the 2005 Legislature.
    "We are not prepared for any judgment," Evans said, noting that the action was just a committee recommendation. "There are so many unanswered questions."
    But the task force stopped short of objecting to disposal of the Ohio and New York waste in Utah.
    In Washington, Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson cast the only vote among the three House members from Utah against the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, which included a provision to help clear the way for the Ohio and New York wa ste to come to Utah.
    Republican U.S. Reps. Chris Cannon and Rob Bishop helped pass the spending bill 387 to 36. All three voted in favor of the Energy Policy Act of 2003, a separate measure that also contained the nuclear waste provision.
    Cannon's press secretary, Meghan Riding, said the 3rd District Republican supported the provision in both bills in the belief that Utah state regulators will have the final say on whether the waste will be entombed at the Enviroca re dump. Bishop declined to comment.
    Bishop has been in the thick of the controversy because he supported the Energy Department's proposal to reclassify the Ohio waste. The first-term congressman, a former Envirocare lobbyist, has acknowledged the letter he sent legi slative leaders last July was drafted by a lobbyist with "ties" to the company.
    Matheson prefaced his "no" vote with strong criticism of the energy bill's redefinition of the waste and the way the provision was pushed through without public debate or advance warning.
    "Some people argue this waste isn't that bad," Matheson said in a brief floor speech. "Mr. Speaker, if the waste isn't that bad, then Ohio and New York should not be in such a rush to get rid of it."
    The House passed the energy bill 246 to 180. The Senate is expected to take up the bill later this week.
    Among the members in the Alliance for Unity who proclaimed their opposition were the Rev. France Davis, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church; the Rev. George Niederauer, Utah's Catholic bishop; the Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish, Utah's E piscopal bishop; bankers Spence Eccles and Harris Simmons; and former Utah first lady Norma Matheson.
    Taking a position on a matter of public policy is unusual for the alliance, formed in 2000 to "help people cross boundaries of culture, religion, ethnicity to better understand and befriend one another."
    Three alliance members representing religious groups said they personally oppose the hotter nuclear waste, and their views may be shared but are not binding on church members.
    "Any religious group that values human life and earth as God's creation is going to speak up," said Irish.
    Niederauer said storing hotter nuclear waste would violate the Catholic church's teaching that humans have concern for the quality of life of their neighbors, including future generations.
    Envirocare spokeswoman Bette Arial said she was disappointed with the alliance's position.
    "If they had better information, they possibly would have made a different decision.";;
    Tribune reporter Christopher Smith contributed to this report.

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