Wednesday, November 11, 1998

New Mexico regulators permitting schedule raises opening questions

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico environmental regulators have set a schedule for processing the permit needed to open the underground nuclear waste dump that appears likely to push federal officials to the wall in meeting their waste removal commitment to Idaho.

The New Mexico Environment Department set up a schedule that does not contemplate the public hearing on the state permit until mid-March. A decision on issuing the permit would come some time after that.

But the Energy Department is under a court-enforceable order to begin removing plutonium-contaminated waste from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory by the end of next April.

Failure to meet that deadline would enable the state to block any new Energy Department shipments of high-level waste to the INEEL for temporary storage until lower-level-but-longer-lasting waste is moved.

And Gov.-elect Dirk Kempthorne has said he will demand that the letter of the 1995 deal retiring Gov. Phil Batt struck with the federal government be met. Kempthorne has also said he does not believe moving just one barrel of waste from the INEEL by the April deadline complies with the agreement.

The $2 billion Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad was to have opened a decade ago. Legal wrangling and other problems delayed it until this year when the federal government expect to open the dump last spring.

Then the new roadblock was thrown up by the state, which has regulatory authority over nuclear waste that is tainted with other hazardous materials. The state does not have control over strictly radioactive material, but it is at odds with the federal government over the method for assuring that waste the Energy Department claims is only radioactive is not also contaminated with other hazardous materials.

New Mexico regulators have set a Jan. 18 deadline for written comments on the state waste permit. A Feb. 22 hearing is set in Santa Fe for both technical and nontechnical testimony. And a March 8 hearing is set in Carlsbad for further public testimony.

If a final public session is needed, it will be held March 15 in Santa Fe.

In addition to beginning to move plutonium-contaminated waste out of Idaho by next April, the government is required to have 15,000 drums relocated by 2003 and then no less than 9,700 drums a year after with all that waste removed by 2016.