Martinez Administration Rushes to Approve WIPP Expansion

Ignoring the normal administrative timeframes and the legal volume limits, the Martinez administration is rushing to approve the proposed thirty percent expansion of the amount of waste allowed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).   In the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act of 1992, Congress allowed disposal of up to 6.2 million cubic feet of transuranic, or plutonium-contaminated, waste and provided that the New Mexico Environment Department and the Environmental Protection Agency would ensure that the limit was not exceeded.

The request by the Department of Energy (DOE) and its contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, would change the way the amount of waste has been measured for more than two decades.  Neither DOE nor the Environment Department have explained where the additional waste would be disposed since there is no space in the existing underground rooms for it.  They have not explained why the change is needed when WIPP is less than 55 percent filled.

In January, DOE and its contractor submitted the permit modification request to the Department, which was strongly opposed by thousands of New Mexicans.   On August 6th, the Department drafted a permit and released it for 45 days of public comment, the minimum time allowed by regulations and less than the 60 days provided earlier in the year for a much less complicated modification request.

Up against its self-imposed December 31st deadline, the Department released its notice for a public hearing on Saturday, September 22nd for a hearing scheduled for Tuesday, October 23rd through Thursday, October 25th, in Carlsbad, thereby preventing meaningful negotiations required by the regulations.  At the hearing, technical testimony was given, cross-examination of the witnesses occurred, and it was clear that the law does not allow two ways to calculate the waste volume.

Under the regulations, there is a thirty-day period of time following the filing of the hearing transcript for the Parties to submit their findings of fact, conclusions of law, and closing arguments.  In this case, the Parties had only six days after the final transcript was filed.

On December 10th, the Hearing Officer released his 45-page report, which rubberstamped all of the Department’s findings and conclusions, and ignored many facts.  Hearing Officer’s Report The regulations allow fifteen days for the Parties to review and provide comments about the report.  But the rush is on, and so the Parties must submit their comments before the close of business on Tuesday, December 18th – a mere eight-day comment period.

The Parties include the Environment Department, DOE and its contractor, and those opposing the draft permit:  former Environment Department WIPP regulator, Steve Zappe; and non-governmental organizations, Southwest Research and Information Center, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, and Nuclear Watch New Mexico.


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