Thursday, December 03, 1998

New Mexico clears waste for storage in dump

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) - The state of New Mexico has removed a major impediment to the federal government meeting its first major deadline under the unprecedented nuclear waste agreement Idaho Gov. Phil Batt signed three years ago.

State environmental regulators cleared specific Energy Department plutonium-contaminated waste for transfer to the $2 billion Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

The decision essentially creates a process for the government to begin moving radioactive waste that is not contaminated with other hazardous substances to the underground dump for permanent storage.

That is critical for federal compliance with the April 30 deadline to begin moving plutonium-contaminated waste out of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. Failing to meet that deadline would lead to a halt in temporarily storing more high-level waste at the INEEL pending creation of a permanent dump for it.

But actual transfer of radioactive-only waste to the New Mexico dump rests with U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn in Washington, D.C., who had issued an order in August blocking any transfers until the process was developed to separate radioactive-only waste from so-called mixed-waste that is contaminated with other hazardous materials.

In view of legal procedures, Energy Department spokeswoman Tracy Loughead said it will likely be February before any waste is actually shipped to the dump.

The New Mexico Environment Department announced its approval of the process to certify radioactive-only waste this week.

"The approval of these analytical results demonstrates that the ... waste stream is not required to be managed as a hazardous waste," the Environment Department said Wednesday.

Regulators are still assessing the government's application for the required state permit to store mixed waste at the site, but officials say it will likely be issued by June.

Although the bulk of the waste destined for the New Mexico facility is mixed with hazardous material, approving a process to identify radioactive-only waste opens the way for at least some shipments early next year.

There does remain, however, a lawsuit asking the federal courts to invalidate the entire certification process for the dump and order it begun from scratch. If granted, that request could delay opening the facility by at least two years.

Several groups claim the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrongly certified the dump for contaminated material from nuclear weapons production.