New Mexico Supreme Court Dismisses WIPP Lawsuit

DOE Proposes Modifications to Statešs Operating Permit

* The New Mexico Supreme Court dismissed the case brought by Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), an Albuquerque-based environmental group, against the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) regarding the permit process for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

SRIC brought the case in 2000 because of concerns about the disposal of a mixture of radioactive and hazardous waste that had been characterized according to the newly-issued state Hazardous Waste permit in the same room of the WIPP site that contained uncharacterized radioactive waste. SRIC argued that NMED could not make such changes to the operating permit without holding an official public hearing. During the 1999 hearing about the WIPP permit, the Hearing Officer determined that in order to protect human health and the environment, the two types of waste should not be disposed of in the same rooms.

Since 1999, DOE has disposed of 39,000 drums of transuranic waste in those rooms located within the first disposal unit, or Panel 1. In March, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that they would soon seal off two entrances to Panel l. NMED then filed a motion that SRIC's case was moot. SRIC responded by presenting the Court with affidavits from three former NMED Secretaries stating that the case should progress to determine if a public hearing was necessary for these types of permit changes. The Court dismissed the case.

Don Hancock, director of SRIC's nuclear waste program, said that the case is an example of how "justice delayed is justice denied - NMED breaks the law and gets away with it."

* DOE is proposing six modifications to the WIPP operating permit to NMED. The proposed permit modifications include removing three underground air-moving fans from the site; removing formaldehyde from the list of hazardous materials that need to be tested for in waste streams from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL); and allowing the construction of new disposal panels at WIPP.

DOE is also proposing to dispose of 1,000 radioactive sealed devices at WIPP from private industry or university laboratories. These devices contain plutonium, beryllium and americium, and are currently being collected by and stored at LANL. The law requires that only defense-related transuranic waste can be disposed of at WIPP. Activists are concerned that disposing of these commercial devices would be illegal and would open the door for disposal of commercial waste at WIPP.

DOE is also proposing to change the waste characterization requirements for large containers. DOE says that the proposed modification will only require a public meeting. In 2000, DOE presented the same type of proposed modification for 55-gallon drums. Many citizens opposed the modification saying that a public hearing was required. A public hearing was then held and the modification was granted, after NMED incorporated many of the issues raised during the hearing process.

DOE will be holding a public meeting to discuss the proposed modifications on June 5 at the Courtyard by Marriott in Santa Fe between 2 and 4 p.m. and 6 and 8 p.m.

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