Wednesday, February 17, 1999

Domenici complains that WIPP still isn't open

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici has complained to New Mexico lawmakers about state-instigated delays in opening the federal dump for plutonium-contaminated waste now temporarily stored in Idaho and other states.

The New Mexico Republican warned this week that there could be attempts in Congress to halt federal financial support for the $2 billion Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad if the underground dump does not open soon.

"I bear no threats," Domenici told both houses of the New Mexico Legislature. But, he added, "pretty soon, maybe this year, somebody will raise the issue, why fund it."

The senator promised to fight those attempts and said he did not blame legislators for any of the problems that have kept the facility from opening.

In his prepared remarks, Domenici said a "tiny, vocal minority" has stalled the facility's opening. However, he did not use that phrase when he delivered the speech.

The New Mexico attorney general's office and environmental groups have asked a federal judge to block the shipment of any waste to the dump. The attorney general contends the Energy Department needs a state hazardous waste permit required for storing radioactive waste contaminated with hazardous material even to store radioactive-only waste.

And the environmentalists contend the entire evaluation of the facility has been faulty and should be redone - a process that could take up to three years.

State regulators have said the so-called mixed waste storage permit could be issued by late summer. But that would make it impossible for the Energy Department to meet the April 30 deadline it is under to begin moving out waste now stored at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

Failure to meet that deadline in the unprecedented 1995 nuclear waste deal with Idaho would result in a halt to future Energy Department shipments of highly radioactive waste for temporary storage at INEEL.

INEEL officials have said there is no alternative dump to ship waste in Idaho should the New Mexico facility remain closed.