Senator Domenici Proposal Cuts WIPP Testing

Lea County Representatives Visit Uranium Processing Plant

* Senator Pete Domenici recently introduced a provision to the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Bill that would limit the ability of the State of New Mexico to require testing of waste bound for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). The provision would challenge the state's permit requirement for the Department of Energy (DOE) to test waste drums for dangerous explosive chemicals and volatile organic compounds before they are sent to WIPP. Domenici argues that the tests are unnecessary and costly. However, opponents say that the proposal would undermine the state's regulatory authority while compromising the WIPP permit.

In a letter to Domenici this week, 15 local environmental, public health, peace and disarmament groups requested that Domenici retract the proposed provision in the interest of public health and safety. The groups pointed out that DOE proposed the testing requirement in its permit application to the state. At the permit hearing in 1999, there was extensive testimony and public comment. In contrast, there has been no opportunity for public comment on Domenici's provision.

Furthermore, the groups claim that the provision contradicts Domenici's earlier advocacy on behalf of state regulation of WIPP. The letter states that Domenici, in his statement in support of the WIPP Act, said, "The bill ... significantly enhances New Mexico's role in the oversight and regulation of the project." The letter continues, "New Mexico's regulation is through the WIPP permit, so gutting the permit, as [this provision] could do, is directly contrary to [Domenici's] promise of state regulation."

The letter also states, "The state permit is the basic safeguard to public health and safety ... during the operational lifetime at WIPP.... Thus, changes to key requirements of the state permit, especially including waste characterization, directly threaten the health and safety of New Mexicans."

In a statement in response to the groups' letter, Domenici said, "This provision has been carefully vetted at many levels ... and deemed to be consistent with public health and safety." According to Roger Nelson, of WIPP, more than 600 such tests have been performed thus far and none of them have shown evidence of dangerous chemicals. Nelson also said that DOE would be required to issue a formal permit modification request to the state, and that the state would be free to reject that request. However, Ron Curry, head of the New Mexico Environment Department, believes that the language in Domenici's proposal would prevent the state's ability to refuse.

Waste Headed for WIPP Ignites (From the Albuquerque Journal, August 14, 2003).

* Representatives from Lea County visited a uranium enrichment facility in the Netherlands recently and are enthusiastic about locating such a facility in Southeastern New Mexico. Jal Mayor Claydean Claiborne said, "I have no qualms whatsoever."

Similar plans in Tennessee encountered community resistance. However, the Lea County Economic Development Corporation has expressed its support of the project, due the creation of 210 long-term jobs.

The facility would be operated by Louisiana Energy Services and its partner, Urenco, a European company that was recently accused of distributing uranium enrichment capabilities to North Korea and Iran.

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