The seemingly endless debate over whether to raise fees charged by the state to dispose of low-level radioactive waste can be likened to a house of mirrors.
You look at it one way and it would seem Envirocare, the only Utah company licensed to accept such waste, is not even close to paying its fair share. Look at it another, and they are paying hundreds of times more than other companies that accept similar waste.Those vastly different perspectives have clearly frustrated state lawmakers, who are predicting a first-class political donnybrook when the 1998 session convenes in January as Envirocare supporters and critics square off.
Quite simply, "It will come down to which side has the votes," said Rep. Ray Short, R-Holladay.
The Revenue and Taxation Committee has spent the past several months studying the issue of the fees paid by commercial waste dumps. They met again Wednesday to revisit the issue once more.
It's not just Envirocare that is under the microscope, but also three hazardous waste facilities in Tooele County owned by Laidlaw and a huge non-hazardous commercial dump in Carbon County owned by Allied Waste Co.
All of the companies testified before the committee that they are struggling, and all three said increased fees would make them less competitive and that would result in less revenue for the state.
But it is Envirocare that is most at the center of the fee debate. Also located in Tooele County, the facility accepts soils contaminated with extremely low levels of radiation. Some 98 percent of its waste comes from massive cleanup projects funded by the federal government.
Envirocare is the only commercial facility of its kind in the nation, although two other facilities accept similar wastes, as well as wastes that are considerably more radioactive.
One of those facilities is owned by the state of South Carolina and the other is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy, which leases it to the state of Washington, which in turn has subleased it to a private company.
Based on the volume of waste, the fees paid at both of those sites are many times greater than the 72 cents per cubic foot paid by Envirocare in state and local fees and taxes.
By comparison, the US Ecology facility in Richland, Wash., pays $14.91 in state and local fees for each cubic foot of radioactive waste. The Chem Nuclear facility at Barnwell, S.C., pays $238.26 per cubic foot.
That disparity - the 72 cents vs. $238.26 - is what prompted lawmakers to look at raising the fees charged to Envi-ro-care.
But Envirocare officials are now quick to point out that comparing fees on cubic feet of waste is like comparing apples to oranges. Chem Nuclear and US Ecology accept wastes that are considerably more radioactive and considerably more dangerous than anything stored at Envirocare.
Consequently, they are trying to persuade lawmakers to look at the waste not by volume but by the measurement of radiation actually in the waste (the standard measurement of radiation is a "curie," which is the amount of radiation in one gram of radium).
For example, Envirocare accepted almost 30 times the amount of waste that was sent to South Carolina, but South Carolina ended up with 500 times the amount of radiation.
Based on 1997 data, Envirocare paid $22,337 in state and local fees and taxes for every curie stored at its Tooele County facility. US Ecology paid $2,566 in state and local taxes for every curie, and Chem Nuclear paid $514 - roughly 2 percent of what Envirocare paid.
"You just can't compare us to Barnwell (Chem Nuclear)," said Ken Alkema, vice president of corporate development for Envirocare. "One train car load coming to Envirocare is the same as a thousand at Barnwell. It's like comparing gravel and silver."
Envirocare, which paid $4.6 million last year in taxes and fees, is not lobbying for fee decreases. It is simply trying to avoid fee increases, which spokesmen say would make the company less competitive in an increasingly competitive environment.
Alkema testified before the committee Wednesday that the company has already lost numerous cleanup projects because it was cheaper just to cap the contaminated soils on the sites rather than ship them to Utah.
"We are a profitable business and we are doing well, but the market is tough and we lose more than we win," he said.
Envirocare has its share of supporters on Capitol Hill, and it has hired a number of influential lobbyists to convey its message before the 1998 session. It also has its share of critics, including Laidlaw and its own stable of lobbyists.
In the 1997 session, Laidlaw - which has experienced a significant decline in the hazardous waste market - had sought legislation that would have allowed it to compete with Envirocare for low-level radioactive wastes. That legislation was shelved amid a furious debate that included allegations of wrongdoing on both sides.
Waste disposal costs
Total State Fees Cost Cubic Foot Cost Per Curie
Envirocare $4,601,508 $.72 $22,337
US Ecology $1,531,925 $14.91 $2,566
Chem Nuclear $52,926,960 $238.26 $514
Source: Office of Legislative Research and General Council