Public WIPP Hearing Scheduled To Begin On March 29

* The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) announced a public hearing for the proposed modifications to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) permit. The hearing was requested by the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) and Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS). WIPP is a repository for waste generated from the making of nuclear weapons. It is located 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico in a salt mine 2,150 feet underground.

The proposed permit modification allows for the disposal of higher level nuclear waste that must be handled with machinery, called remote-handled waste; relaxes the requirements for testing the contents of the waste containers; and expands the above-ground storage space fourfold. Since the operating permit was issued by NMED in 1999, the Department of Energy (DOE) has submitted several permit modification requests. The draft permit combines three previously rejected DOE permit requests. In the past, NMED rejected the modification requests because DOE had not provided adequate information to assure the safety or demonstrate the need for the proposed modifications.

The existing WIPP permit was issued after several years of public comment, nineteen days of testimony by technical witnesses, comments from more than 100 individuals, a transcript and exhibits exceeding 10,000 pages and the full administrative record of hundreds of thousands of pages. However, when issuing the present draft permit, NMED did not require nearly as much additional evidence despite the greater risks to public safety and the environment. In fact, NMED did not make the full administrative record available to the public until after the comment period had begun.

Don Hancock, of SRIC said, "Provisions in the existing permit were scrutinized in the permitting process and should only be changed based on changes in law or a substantial technical basis. However, the modification request does not demonstrate the technical bases nor the need for the proposed changes. The NMED permit must continue to require adequate examination procedures at the waste generator sites and stringent waste handling procedures at WIPP to protect public health and the environment and to ensure that WIPP operates as safely as possible."

SRIC and CCNS requested that NMED, the Permittes, SRIC, CCNS and other parties conduct negotiations to attempt to resolve the draft permit issues. NMED has scheduled negations to begin on March 9th. SRIC and CCNS believe that NMED and other parties will agree with some of the objections and concerns so that a revised draft permit can be developed before proceeding to a public hearing. Joni Arends, of CCNS, said, "There is much evidence against the draft permit and more than 1,500 New Mexicans submitted postcards opposing what many are calling the monster modification. Going to hearing on a badly flawed draft permit appears to be an enormous waste of precious time and resources."

The public hearing is scheduled to begin on March 29th and continue until April 12th, or as long as necessary. Most of the hearing is scheduled to be held in Carlsbad. Only a day and a half is scheduled for Santa Fe, and will be held on April 6th and 7th.

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