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Revenue generation makes waste-disposal industry a heavy hitter

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What's a five-letter word for garbage? Maybe "waste" or "trash?"

In Utah, the correct response is inevitably "money." In fact, the disposal of waste is a huge industry here. Collectively, these businesses generate hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate revenues, employ hundreds of workers and sweeten state and local coffers through millions in fees and taxes.

In fact, the Tooele County budget is largely dependent on waste industries.

In all, Utah is home to one hazardous waste landfill, two hazardous waste incinerators (one is currently shut down), two radioactive waste dumps, a chemical weapons incinerator, a massive commercial landfill that accepts some wastes deemed hazardous in other states but not in Utah, and a facility that burns municipal waste.

Each is regulated to some degree or another by the state Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and/or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Each, to one degree or another, is subject to fierce criticism from environmentalists who scrutinize every nuance of their disposal licenses, applications for changes in their permits, and violations issued by regulators. Now add to the brew the inescapable fact all operate in a highly charged political atmosphere and a volatile business climate where the market for waste is constantly changing.

"In this business, you change or you aren't in business anymore," said Charles Judd, president of Envirocare of Utah, a commercial low-level radioactive waste facility in Tooele County that generates about $100 million a year in revenue.

Changes in the market for the nastiest of human-caused wastes have already led to the demise of one hazardous waste incinerator (it operated only a few months before it was shut down for lack of waste to burn). And Safety-Kleen, owners of a hazardous waste landfill in Tooele County, recently filed for bankruptcy protection. Envirocare is also faced with declining revenues, forcing them to lay off workers.

The result is an industry that is struggling to stay alive. And Judd warns that companies that don't change are going to be out of business.

When Judd says "change" what he means is they must be allowed to accept different kinds of wastes above and beyond what was originally authorized.

Envirocare had planned to petition Utah lawmakers and the governor this legislative session for permission to accept radioactive wastes thousands of times hotter than they are currently licensed for now. Called Class B and C wastes, these materials are remnants from the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, as well as wastes from research labs and hospitals. Some of the shipments will be so lethal that if somebody got close enough, they could receive a fatal dose, noted Bill Sinclair, director of the Utah Division of Radiation Control.

But the company decided to wait, given that lawmakers are uncomfortable about addressing the issue before the public comment period has ended.

Without the permit, Judd said Envirocare will be in serious financial trouble as its current supply of waste — low-level radioactive soils called Class A wastes — runs out in the next few years.

Several years ago, Safety-Kleen had approached lawmakers about its plan to accept the same Class A radioactive wastes that constitute the bulk of Envirocare's business. But those attempts were blocked by Envirocare and Tooele County commissioners who argued there was not enough of the waste to sustain both the existing Envirocare facility and an expanded Safety-Kleen.

For more than a decade, Envirocare has deftly navigated the stormy political waters surrounding the commercial storage of mildly radioactive waste. But many lawmakers simply don't like the fact Utah has become a national dumping ground for radioactive and hazardous wastes, and they can't see allowing wastes that are even more toxic.

Envirocare and its owner, Khosrow B. Semnani, have responded by contributing generously to Utah political campaigns and political parties — Almost $100,000 over the past two years — winning friends on Capitol Hill.

Envirocare sees its two primary sources of waste —11e2 and Class A wastes that currently combine for 80 to 90 percent of their business — largely disappearing over the next several years.

It's not so much that supplies of waste have disappeared as it is government regulators are looking for less-costly ways of disposing of contaminated soils. Most federally funded cleanups now involve building storage cells on or near the contaminated site.

For example, the 10 million tons of uranium tailings at the Atlas mill near Moab is something that in years past could have been earmarked for disposal at Envirocare. But Atlas cleanup plans call for the tailings to be shipped to a site near the Moab airport where they will be buried.

Government regulators with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have also changed the rules on disposal of low-level radioactive wastes. Some materials once targeted for Envirocare are considered so benign they can now be discarded in public landfills. Other contaminated soils can be recycled for traces of uranium.

Despite objections by the state, the NRC is allowing International Uranium Corp., which operates a uranium processing mill near Blanding, to accept contaminated soils and mill tailings for recycling. The small traces of uranium being extracted cannot be justified given low market prices for uranium, but the company also gets paid cleanup fees for taking the materials.

State regulators argue that is nothing more than a sham for disposing of radioactive wastes without state oversight, and that taxpayers will be left with cleaning up a huge tailings pile once the company walks away from the Blanding mill. The company argues, and the NRC agrees, that recycling, whether subsidized with cleanup payments or not, makes good economic and environmental sense.

Ironically, the state's dispute with International Uranium has resulted in a strange alliance: Environmentalists often critical of the state's pro-industry posture toward waste disposal have been wholeheartedly supporting the state's position that radioactive wastes should be properly discarded in regulated facilities like Envirocare.

"It is painful (to admit), but yes, sites like Envirocare are needed to serve the public good by cleaning up these cultural nightmares sitting next to schools and airports," said J. Preston Truman, founder of Utah Downwinders and a frequent critic of Envirocare's business practices.

"Does it mean it all has to be shipped to Utah? I don't think so," he said. "The nation has to come to task with those already sacrificed on the nuclear altar, the Utahns and Nevadans and Idahoans who have already given their lives."

E-MAIL: spang@desnews.com ; donna@desnews.com