Environment Department Approves 30 Percent WIPP Expansion

Last Friday, before a four-day holiday weekend, the Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department, Butch Tongate, approved the permit modification request by the Department of Energy (DOE) to expand by thirty percent the waste capacity of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).  The haste to finalize the permit modification request prior to the end of the Martinez Administration is evident in the number of errors in the Secretary’s Order Approving Draft Permit. The Parties to the permit modification process, which included a three-day public hearing in Carlsbad, will now have thirty-days to appeal the Secretary’s decision to the New Mexico Court of Appeals. HWB 18-19 (P) Secretarys Order Approving Draft Permit

In January, 2018, DOE and its contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, a limited liability corporation, proposed to modify the Environment Department’s hazardous waste permit to allow a new way to count the amount of waste disposed of at WIPP, in violation of federal law and the state’s legal authorities.  https://www.env.nm.gov/hazardous-waste/wipp/, scroll down to “WIPP News 2018.”

In 1992, Congress passed the Land Withdrawal Act, which allows for the disposal of up to 6.2 million cubic feet of transuranic, or plutonium-contaminated, radioactive and hazardous waste generated from nuclear weapons research, development, and manufacturing.

The Environment Department is charged with protecting public health and the environment.  In 1999, the Environment Department included the 6.2 million cubic feet capacity in the initial hazardous waste permit.  The permit continued previous DOE practice of the volume being counted as the gross internal volume of the outermost container.  For example, putting containers in larger overpacks results in counting the outer container volume, which, among other things, includes air contaminated with wastes in the outer container.

Now, due to nearly two decades of mismanagement of the waste capacity in which more than 700,000 cubic feet of underground space was not used, DOE and its contractor ginned up a new definition, a “Land Withdrawal Act transuranic, or TRU, waste limit.”  The new definition allows DOE to count the volume of the waste inside the containers.  Instead of counting the overpack volume, the Environment Department decision allows DOE to count the volume as it desires.

Under the federal act and the permit, no later than the time when 6.2 million cubic feet of waste has been buried, WIPP must close.  Under the approved modification, the Environment Department has given up its regulatory authority to DOE to say when WIPP must be closed.

Don Hancock, of Southwest Research and Information Center, and one of the Parties to the negotiations and hearing, said, “The Final Order violates federal law, the New Mexico-DOE Consultation and Cooperation Agreement, decades of practice, and the permit record. The Order must not be implemented.”  http://www.sric.org/


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