WIPP Shipment Returned to Idaho After Contamination Found

Bush Administration Reviewing NEPA

* Contamination found on a shipment of waste bound for the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (or INEEL) last week. The contamination was found following a collision between the waste truck and a drunk driver a mere 23 miles from WIPP. Although no hazardous releases were found at the scene of the accident, upon routine inspection at WIPP, significant levels of plutonium-239 and americium-241 were found. This is the first traffic accident involving waste since WIPP's opening in 1999, and the first shipment that has been returned due to contamination.

It is questionable whether the contamination was due to the accident or originated at INEEL. Therefore, Don Hancock, of Southwest Research and Information Center, among others, is requesting that all shipments from INEEL to WIPP be stopped until the source of the contamination can be properly identified. This would not be the first such suspension. In fact, INEEL has a long history of waste shipping problems, beginning with the very first shipment to WIPP, which was not documented properly and led to a suspension of further shipments from May to August 1999.

In a letter to Inés Triay, WIPP manager, Hancock said, "If there were problems with INEEL's practices, they should be identified and corrected before any further shipments are made to WIPP. INEEL's full attention, facilities, technical and management resources should be focused on dealing with the returned shipment."

* The Bush Administration has recently ordered a review of the National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA), the law that requires that environmental impact statements be prepared before any major federal action is undertaken that may adversely affect the environment. White House officials say that the review is an attempt to modernize the law, which was signed in 1969 by former President Nixon, and, which, they say, is responsible for much bureaucratic gridlock. Activists and environmentalists are concerned that this is a move by the Bush administration to weaken environmental standards and revoke crucial protections.

The Bush Administration has appointed a task force to address NEPA. Horst Greczmiel, task force director, said, "We're not out to gut [NEPA] ... but to try to make it better.... We want to cut the fat if there is fat, and beef up the beef." However, Maria Weidner, of the environmental law and policy group Earthjustice, said, "Given this administration's past record on the environment, it's hard to imagine that they are up to any good." During his presidency, Bush has proposed increased logging in order to prevent forest fires, greater leniency in air and water emission standards, and less protection for endangered species.

Despite claims that NEPA "has been used and abused by those who want to obstruct [development]," activists will continue to support the law. Amy Mall, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "NEPA was intended to ... balance public needs by increasing public input. Efforts to waive laws like NEPA are particularly egregious." The White House Council on Environmental Quality will be accepting public comments on NEPA through September 23rd and is expected to release its findings early next year.

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