DOE Threatens to Cut Funding for Independent WIPP Oversight Group

* The Department of Energy (DOE) has threatened to cut the funding for the Environmental Evaluation Group (EEG), which provides independent technical and scientific oversight of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). The cuts could mean that the EEG would close by the end of April. DOE argues that the funding cut was prompted by fiscal mismanagement by the EEG.

The EEG was formed in 1978 and was included the 1981 Consultation and Cooperation Agreement between DOE and the State of New Mexico. The agreement requires DOE to "assist the State in obtaining the resources necessary for [it] to undertake a meaningful independent review of the public health and safety aspects of WIPP."

The EEG has produced over 90 reports analyzing every facet of WIPP and associated waste transportation. The EEG also conducts an independent radiation surveillance program and has become an international voice when discussing permanent geologic radioactive waste disposal.

The funding cuts come at a critical time in WIPP's operating history. DOE and the State of New Mexico are currently in disagreement regarding DOE's proposal to dispose of extremely radioactive sludge from Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and the Savannah River Site. Governor Bill Richardson and New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry have both stated that WIPP will not accept the sludge under any circumstances. There will be a public hearing to discuss this proposal in early June in Santa Fe.

Further, Senator Pete Domenici recently proposed a law that would severely limit the State's oversight of WIPP. Domenici has proposed removing the State's power to inspect waste containers before they are disposed at WIPP. Activists speculate that the de-funding the EEG may be due to their criticism of this proposal.

However, Senator Jeff Bingaman has expressed his support for the EEG. In a recent statement, he said, "I am still hoping that the [DOE] will make funds available to the [EEG] so they can continue their work uninterrupted through the current fiscal year."

Representative Tom Udall also expressed his disappointment in DOE, saying, "[DOE] could find the money if they wanted to. I think it's just a drop in the bucket compared with the amount DOE spends on consultants. The DOE and its people have never really liked the EEG or its independence."

Moreover, the federal five-year recertification of WIPP has begun. The recertification will determine whether WIPP is suited to contain radioactive waste for 10,000 years. In a letter to the Albuquerque Journal, several activist groups, including Southwest Research and Information Center, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping, said, "Perhaps it is no accident that DOE is terminating EEG at this critical time when EEG's oversight of WIPP is most vital."

Former DOE Secretary and current Governor Richardson, said, "The EEG ... [was] independently critical of many things that the DOE did, and I don't see why there shouldn't be this kind of critical, independent element. Hopefully it's a dispute that will be resolved."

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