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Lawmakers consider low-level N-waste bill

Picture a circumstance in which dozens of U.S. cities have a healthy supply of radioactive dirt but no place to ditch it.

On the surface it would seem an intractable problem. Who in his right mind wants radioactive dirt?Well . . . lots of waste-management companies, as it turns out, because radioactive dirt in the late 20th century is a commodity and thus, the escalating struggle at the Legislature this week over whether to let a second player have a piece of the pie.

Envirocare of Utah today controls the entire and enormous private U.S. market in low-level radioactive waste, which for the most part is made up of tainted soil and tailings from any number of chem-i-cal/industrial/mining/

defense sites around the country.

At its dump in central Tooele County, Envirocare does a booming trade that last year approached $100 million in exchange for offering a hard-to-find service. (Simply put, the company gets paid to bury radioactive material.)

And Envirocare, after only a few years of business, flourishes despite a cloud of scandal hanging over the company. Its owner, Khosrow B. Semnani, has stepped down temporarily while the FBI investigates an arrangement in which Semnani some time ago paid $600,000 in assorted cash and real estate to the man who was then the state's chief radiation watchdog.

Semnani has said it was extortion. Larry F. Anderson, former head of the Utah Division of Radiation Control, has stated that it was simply an innocuous business deal.

Envirocare, in the meantime, steamrolls along at a rate that would be the rival of any startup corporation. In less than a decade, it has gone from no business at all to average daily revenues of $250,000 or so, and that's 365 days a year.

Its success stems from the fact it has what nobody else does - a rare combination of government licenses that allows it to take low-level radioactive waste on a sizeable scale.

Enter Laidlaw Environmental Services, a potential rival that wants some of the action directed its way at a dump it owns just across I-80 from Envirocare.

SB144, sponsored by Sen. Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni, in effect, would let Laidlaw take the same kind of stuff Envirocare gets, over the objections of Envirocare managers who suggest the market might not support more than one operation.

"Yes, there's plenty (of low-level radioactive waste) but 95 percent is not going to go anywhere," said Envirocare President Charles Judd.

Most of the tens of millions of tons of such material will stay where it is, Judd argued, because it costs too much to haul it across the country.

"We think the low-level radioactive waste business is vibrant," countered John Ward, a lobbyist for Laidlaw. "There's lots of it out there and a shortage of places to take it to."

The argument grows convoluted from there.

If SB144 becomes law, Laidlaw still would need approvals from the Department of Environmental Quality and Tooele County. But it would not have to come back to the Legislature and Gov. Mike Leavitt for their approval next year.

State lawmakers took their first crack at SB144 Monday in the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Development Committee. After a 50-minute discussion, they agreed to continue the conversation at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in Room 403 at the Capitol.

During Monday's debate, senators were concerned the bill might open the door for other companies to process low-level radioactive waste in Utah without first coming before the governor and the Legislature. They were assured by Blackham and others that couldn't happen, because the bill only bypasses legislative approval for companies with the type of hazardous-waste permits that only Laidlaw and Envirocare possess. All new permit requests would have to come before the Legislature.

Blackham said the bill simply reverses the order in the current approval process.

"All we're basically doing is giving our permission up front rather than after the fact, if it meets the other requirements," he told the committee.

Laidlaw officials said Envirocare has a monopoly on the low-level radioactive-waste market. Ken Alkema, director of government affairs for Envirocare, said that's false because several other companies outside Utah compete for the same waste.