Friday, February 19, 1999

State lawmaker presses to open New Mexico dump

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Tired of what he sees as foot-dragging by state regulators, a New Mexico lawmaker is pressing for the immediate opening of the dump for plutonium-contaminated waste now stored in Idaho and other states.

Democratic Rep. John Heaton of Carlsbad has introduced legislation in the New Mexico House that would exempt the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant from a requirement for a state permit to store radioactive waste that is also contaminated with other hazardous material.

The New Mexico Department of Environment has indicated that permit might be issued by late summer - well past the April 30 deadline for the U.S. Energy Department to begin moving waste from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory to the $2 billion underground dump near Carlsbad.

Federal officials claim they can store radioactive-only waste in the facility without a state permit, but some New Mexico officials, including the attorney general, have been using the state permit and other maneuvers to keep the dump closed.

"The state has taken 4 1/2 years so far but has not issued a permit," Heaton said, calling the Environment Department "a significant deterrent to business coming and expanding in New Mexico."

But department spokesman Nathan Wade said Heaton's bill "is bad, but the timing is even worse. We feel the federal government is a better environmental actor when someone is peeking over their shoulder."

The so-called mixed waste permit is the only vehicle the state has to keep tabs on the dump, and Wade said Heaton "would remove the state of New Mexico's ability to peek over DOE's shoulder."

But Heaton contends state oversight is unnecessary since federal regulators with the Environmental Protection Agency will be scrutinizing dump operations.

Under Idaho's unprecedented 1995 nuclear waste deal with the Energy Department, failure to meet the April 30 deadline to begin transferring plutonium-contaminated waste from the INEEL would result cessation of any further shipments of high-level waste to Idaho for temporary storage.

Federal officials have already said the only place they can ship INEEL waste is the New Mexico dump.