Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

More scrutiny of WIPP unwarranted

Dale Janway

We were disappointed in the ‘s Jan. 4 editorial “NM right to ask for accounting of nuclear waste,” which praises the New Mexico Environment Department’s list of proposed changes to WIPP’s hazardous waste permit.

If implemented, these changes would massively strengthen the agency’s future authority over WIPP and other unrelated activities such as transportation, repository siting, and waste generator site activity. This could allow the state to halt shipments for a wide variety of reasons, including mere allegations of problems by anyone. Many of the proposed permit conditions are well outside of the state’s authority to regulate hazardous waste under federal or state law.

If implemented, we also believe many of these provisions could result in an early closure of WIPP, well before its mandated cleanup mission is completed, resulting in the loss of a vital national asset and thousands of jobs.

For example, the NMED is proposing a provision where the state permit is automatically revoked if certain changes are made to the federal Land Withdrawal Act, which defines the scope of WIPP. The Land Withdrawal Act is subject to the will of the United States Congress, the highest legislative authority in our country. Additional provisions in the realm of “accountability” include the need for the WIPP to control how many shipments are coming out of Los Alamos versus other nuclear waste generators, which is not practical and for WIPP to track and report on progress regarding another repository for transuranic waste, which is far beyond WIPP’s statutory responsibility.

Advocates of the NMED’s proposal are mentioning other nuclear activities in New Mexico, such as the Trinity Site and uranium mining, as justification for the need to set boundaries. They are getting tough on WIPP, they say, because the federal government has ignored them in the past.

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However, it’s a mistake from the starting point to lump in WIPP, which safely offers a national solution, with these concerns. It’s also a mistake to ignore the numerous benefits, including the existence of two national labs, thousands of jobs and national cleanup success, resulting from both WIPP and New Mexico’s overall nuclear legacy.

It’s also a mistake to abuse what should be a neutral regulatory process to make these points.

It is certainly our impression that the residents of Carlsbad and the surrounding area did not have any voice when the New Mexico Environment Department was drafting these proposed modifications. We believe it is a mistake to dismiss the viewpoints of those who live and work near a facility.

What it boils down to is that WIPP has an incredible safety record in terms of transportation, emplacement, and regulatory compliance. It is very important that WIPP be allowed to continue from a state point of view, as newer missions at Los Alamos mean that WIPP must remain open in order to resolve New Mexico’s own cleanup needs.

The NMED’s attempt to weaponize its hazardous waste permit is not the right approach.

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