Conejos County Board of Commissioners Denies Special Use Permit Application; Surface Transportation Board Agrees to Public Meeting

December 24, 2010

As early as the spring of 2009, the Department of Energy (DOE) made plans to transport waste by truck and rail from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) through Colorado to a waste dump west of Salt Lake City, Utah. Without the required public National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document, DOE contracted with EnergySolutions, a private company based in Utah, to carry soils contaminated with PCBs, depleted uranium, and low-level radioactive materials from LANL in flatbed trucks where it would be transferred to rail gondolas near Antonito, in Conejos County, Colorado. The shipments would continue by rail over LaVeta Pass to Walsenberg, Colorado, then north to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where they would turn west to the EnergySolutions facility 75 miles west of Salt Lake City.

Two non-governmental organizations, Conejos County Clean Water, Inc., and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, learned in November 2009 that the DOE had not prepared a site-specific environmental impact statement for the transfer operation in Antonito. Along with Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, the groups filed a NEPA lawsuit to require DOE to prepare a site-specific environmental impact statement.

In selecting a site with an economically-disadvantaged minority population, DOE appeared to continue a practice of environmental injustice. About 60% of the population of Conejos County is Hispanic. Conejos County is one of the poorest in the U.S., where median household income stands at less than half the national average. Over a third of its children live in poverty.

At the same time, the Conejos County Board of Commissioners at their meeting November 4, considered how a nearby transfer facility would impact their community. The transfer of radioactive waste would occur near the town of Antonito, and it was feared that the facility would be incompatible with the needs of the area, which contains towns and ranches.

These concerns were weighed against the possibilities for income to Conejos County and the Town of Antonito. After hearing from the public, the County Commissioners delayed action for 30 days. At their December 6 meeting, the Commissioners denied the special use permit application of EnergySolutions.

Afterwards, Andrea Trujillo-Guajardo, a member of Conejos County Clean Water, said, "I'm just very pleased that the commissioners made an objective decision today that protects the health and environment in Conejos County."

In a related matter, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads, agreed with the community that the Board should hold a public meeting in Conejos County to take public comments about the proceedings. As of this writing, the Board is considering a request by the railroad for a declaratory order to pre-empt it from county and state regulation.

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