Utahns beat back radioactive waste


With the help of some ugly political wrangling by the Utah congressional delegation, a hazardous waste disposal company nearly succeeded in its bid to bring 12,900 cubic yards of highly contaminated radioactive waste to the state. But on Nov. 18, after vociferous opposition at home, Envirocare of Utah pulled its federal application to dump the waste at its desert facility, 80 miles west of Salt Lake City.

"We probably weren’t going to be in the running, anyway," says Envirocare spokeswoman Bette Arial, noting that, even with federal approval, politicians in the state capital were unlikely to give their support. In October, news broke that first-term Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, R, had sent a letter to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce supporting a measure that would "reclassify" waste at a Superfund site in Ohio. This would have made it possible for Envirocare to accept waste at least 10 times more radioactive than currently allowed under Utah law (HCN, 10/14/02: Utah could kill a radioactive dump).

Bishop, a former Envirocare lobbyist, contended that the waste could be shipped safely by rail and would save federal taxpayers an estimated $30 million. Not shipping the waste to Utah, the letter read, "deprives a significant Utah company of additional revenue." The congressman later admitted that his letter was actually written by a current lobbyist with ties to Envirocare.

Nonetheless, in October, Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, R, inserted language in a Senate energy and water spending bill that would allow reclassified Ohio waste — as well as waste from a Superfund site in New York — to be shipped to Envirocare. The provision passed unchallenged by Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, R, who sits on the subcommittee that crafted the bill — and who himself had spent years pushing for regulatory changes that would allow Envirocare to store more radioactive waste.

But Utahns reacted in dismay. The state’s new Republican governor, Olene Walker, as well as an influential group of the state’s top religious, business and community leaders, came out against the waste. Bowing to the pressure, Bishop brokered a deal with Envirocare that put the company’s bid on hold until sometime next spring, when the state will receive oversight of all waste coming to company’s landfill.

Then, on Nov. 17, Bennett announced that he was opposed to the waste-importation plan. Envirocare pulled its application the next day, even though the reclassification provision passed the House and the Senate.

The author writes from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Note: this article appears with these three additional news articles in a spread about Congressional politics:

- As Congress adjourns, the environment is left in limbo

- Forest protection on the honor system

- New nuke studies are in the works

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