October 08, 1998

DOE protests New Mexico dump delay

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Increasingly impatient federal waste managers are considering ignoring New Mexico regulators' warnings against shipping any waste to the underground federal nuclear dump near Carlsbad until a state permit is issued.

Energy Department officials said comments of New Mexico Environment Department attorney Susan McMichael that a state permit may not be issued until next summer were "a serious setback to the cooperative efforts" to open the $2 billion facility where waste now stored in Idaho and elsewhere will be dumped.

McMichael told state lawmakers earlier this week that if attempts to open the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant are made before the permit is issued, they would not only set back the permitting process even more but could prompt more legal action against the federal government.

The seemingly intensifying dispute jeopardizes prospects that the government will comply with next April's deadline for moving at least some plutonium-contaminated waste out of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. Missing that deadline under Gov. Phil Batt's 1995 nuclear waste agreement could prompt a federal court order barring any new shipments of high-level Energy Department waste into Idaho for temporary storage.

Federal officials have reiterated their contention that no state permit is needed to store waste that is only radioactive in the New Mexico dump. State regulators have authority on over radioactive waste that is mixed with other hazardous substances. The Energy Department said it had not pressed the issue to date because it was trying to accommodate the state.

But officials said there are 111 barrels of waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico that are ready to be used to bring the dispute to a head.

"In a few weeks, DOE believes the sampling and analysis it is conducting will confirm the waste it intends to send to WIPP is non-mixed," said James Owendoff, acting assistant Energy Department secretary for environmental management. "At that point it will be time to open WIPP."

Federal officials said waste at other sites around the country was also ready to be shipped.

"They're talking about an undisclosed number of shipments from an undisclosed number of locations," Environment Department spokesman Nathan Wade said. "They're trying to bully us."

Originally scheduled to open a decade again, legal wrangling and other delays put off any real prospect of dumping at the facility in southeastern New Mexico until this year. But a new round of conflicts derailed May and July opening dates and put the future of dump back up in the air.