Monday, March 27, 2000

Energy Department puts incinerator on hold

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) - The Department of Energy has offered to put plans to build an incinerator on hold while it looks at alternatives for treating the state's nuclear waste.

The offer was made to settle a lawsuit with watchdog groups and Jackson, Wyo., residents, who maintained that incineration was a dangerous and outdated technology.

In a well-funded and visible campaign, the groups maintained that air pollution, including plutonium particles and several hundred chemicals coming out of the incinerator stack, would hurt the area's national parks, residents' health and local crops.

The Department of Energy now has offered to postpone seeking permits and construction on the highly controversial incinerator while scientific experts explore other technologies, according to a copy of the settlement agreement faxed to the Post Register.

Sunday night, all the groups involved in the lawsuit agreed to sign the settlement and drop the suit, said Laird Lucas, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, including Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, the Snake River Alliance, the Environmental Defense Institute, the Sierra Club and the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

"For all intents and purposes this incinerator is dead," Lucas said.

The Department of Energy repeatedly had maintained incineration is a safe, effective technology for treating the waste, which is laced with plutonium and hazardous chemicals.

But the settlement agreement now says, "DOE is committed to the goal of identifying alternatives to incineration and that such alternatives shall be environmentally sound."

Energy Department-Idaho spokesman Brad Bugger had no comment Sunday night, saying the matter was still in litigation.

The agreement says the agency will convene a "blue-ribbon" panel of independent scientific experts to look at other technologies besides incineration that might be available in the future.

The agency will continue to seek permits for a treatment plant to sort, crush and repackage the waste in drums. If state and federal regulators grant the last three permits, the DOE should be able to get rid of about 75 percent of the plutonium-contaminated waste simply by crushing and repackaging it.

That will enable the waste, which has been stored in Idaho for decades, to be shipped to a permanent dump in New Mexico.

Beatrice Brailsford of the Snake River Alliance said it has been nearly a decade since watchdog groups and public outcry has forced the INEEL to back down on such a major project. That group's board met Sunday night and decided to sign the settlement.

"This is a significant victory," she said. "I'm hoping that this is yet another sign that the Department of Energy ... actually understands that incineration is too hard and too stupid to do."