October 26, 1998

State wants to know why DOE didn't announce mining work at WIPP

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico environmental regulators want to know why they were not notified before the Energy Department began a mining operation this month at the underground dump for plutonium-contaminated waste now stored in Idaho and elsewhere.

State officials said the government has yet to respond to their requests about the operation at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, although the Energy Department ceased the underground activity on Friday.

"We don't know what they're doing yet," state Environment Department spokesman Nathan Wade said. "In general, we're curious about what's going on in the salt mine."

It is the first mining activity in the underground salt caverns that the government has spent $2 billion converting into storage for low-level-but-long-lasting radioactive waste from America's production of nuclear weapons.

The dump was supposed to begin accepting waste last spring but legal and regulatory disputes have stalled initial operations until at least next. Under Idaho's nuclear waste deal with the federal government, waste must begin moving out of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory by next April or further shipments of high-level Energy Department waste to INEEL for temporary storage will be blocked.

On Oct. 1, the Energy Department began extending one of the New Mexico dump's tunnels in preparation for digging out a second complex of underground storage rooms. About 818 tons of rock and salt were excavated over two weeks and the tunnel extended by 74 feet.

But the mining reignites the debate between the state and federal governments over just how much authority New Mexico has over the dump.

The federal government contends that the state has far less authority than it thinks, and it has said it could dispose of radioactive waste without a state permit as long as no hazardous chemicals are mixed in.

The Energy Department contends the state has no authority over the mining work, but a spokesman said the department wanted to cooperate with the state and avoid confrontation.

Dump critics and New Mexico Attorney General Tom Udall maintained that all operations are regulated by the state under the permit that has not yet been issued. And without it, they claim the government can neither dump waste or work on the facility.

Energy Department spokesman Dennis Hurtt described the mining work as "no big deal."

"It wasn't a big deal at all until the state got involved," he said. "It's just an extension."

Not only were state regulators not advised of the work, but Hurtt said neither was Energy Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"If we thought it was newsworthy, we would have told you," Hurtt said.