Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Deadline for public comment on WIPP permit closes Wednesday

The public comment period to renew  the permit for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, New Mexico’s hazardous waste facility, closes Wednesday at 5 p.m.

The facility, abbreviated as WIPP, lies in a salt bed 26 miles east of Carlsbad in Eddy County. WIPP is the nation’s only storage site for defense-related nuclear waste.The waste stored 2,150 feet below ground includes gloves, tools, rags, sludge, soils, and other objects contaminated with elements that are heavier than uranium, mostly plutonium.

The site is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy which runs radioactive waste disposal treatment for the country’s nuclear weapons program and has the responsibility to site, build and operate the national repository for nuclear waste. The national storage effort has largely been at an impasse, after decades of local opposition effectively blocked using the Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Lower-level waste barrels and boxes are stocked in the underground disposal rooms, according to WIPP’s website, while more radioactive waste is kept in boreholes in the walls. However, WIPP is facing a physical space issue, with a Government Accountability Office report noting that WIPP’s physical space could be filled by 2025.

Members of the public can submit written comments or requests to hold a public hearing on the hazardous waste permit to the New Mexico Environment Department website here.

All information kept by the state can be found on the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant page

The state extended the permit – which expired December 30, 2020 – until a new operating permit is issued. That permit called for a closure to the plant in 2024. WIPP leaders are seeking renewal for at least another 10 years, and approval to store more waste at the plant.

The state environmental agency and the Environmental Protection Agency issue permits to operate. Only the EPA can regulate radiological aspects of the waste at WIPP. The state does inspect, oversee and clean up facilities in the case of spills.

WIPP had two high-profile accidents in 2014. A truck fire, and later, a barrel breaking open after a reaction to the wrong cat litter to contain sludge caused a radiation leak and shut down nuclear waste processing at the facility for three years. The accidents also reduced space as storage areas were closed without being filled.

In a December 2022 fact sheet, New Mexico environmental officials proposed changes to tighten their requirements for permitting the facility.

NMED’s proposed 25 changes to the permit such as adding more public participation that requires the federal government to make a case for keeping WIPP open beyond ten years. 

Other changes would require the facility to prioritize accepting waste from New Mexico sites, and laying out its right to “suspend waste shipments” to WIPP if there are any allegations or evidence of a threat to human health or the environment, up to revoking the permit if U.S. Congress increases the federal limit for storing transuranic waste. 

The state’s environmental agency opened a public comment period Dec. 20, 2022 which was poised to end in mid-February.  

Local nuclear watchdog nonprofits requested an extension, citing the need for more time to review the 1,200-page permit request and the inconvenience of the deadline ending during the 2023 legislative session. 

The state granted a 60-day extension, which ends Wednesday, April 19.

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