Nuclear waste hits another roadblock

  Just one week before the U.S. Department of Energy planned to ship radioactive trash to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M., state environmental regulators gave the agency another red light.

In May, the federal Environmental Protection Agency approved shipping to the site waste that would include garbage, clothing, laboratory equipment and other material contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements in the nation's nuclear weapons complex.

But in a letter faxed to WIPP officials in mid-June, state regulators said the U.S. Department of Energy had failed to prove that the waste was not tainted with solvents, lead or other chemical waste regulated by the state. The state threatened to take the Energy Department to court if it went ahead with plans to open the plant without a state permit.

U.S. Energy Secretary Federico Peûa reacted with "shock" to the warning, though he had quietly postponed the June 19 opening date. "It is very unfortunate that (the state Environment Department) delayed raising these issues until just before (the Energy Department) was planning to open WIPP," he wrote in a letter to Gov. Gary Johnson.

Federal judge John Garrett Penn asked the Energy Department to delay opening WIPP until he rules on a lawsuit raised by New Mexico Attorney General Tom Udall and environmental groups. They argue WIPP cannot open until Judge Penn lifts a 1992 order that blocked shipping waste until Congress set aside land for the dump. Congress has since withdrawn the land, but Judge Penn has not officially lifted the order, says Udall spokeswoman Kay Roybal. Udall hopes the technicality will stall WIPP long enough to convince the Energy Department it needs a state permit. WIPP officials say the plant will open in August.

* Mike Taugher

Mike Taugher writes for the Albuquerque Journal.

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