For years, organizers of the 2002 Winter Games have been sending the message: "The world is welcome here."
But Utah lawmakers have a more immediate concern: whether or not the world's waste is also welcome here.
When Utah's 104 lawmakers convene Jan. 15, they will have to deal with perennial problems like funding education and programs for the needy. But the hottest issue on Capitol Hill this year could be waste, more specifically, radioactive wastes.
Gov. Mike Leavitt has asked lawmakers to give him $1.6 million to fight a proposal by mostly Eastern nuclear power utilities to store 40,000 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods on Goshute tribal lands about 70 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
That request isn't likely to cause lawmakers too much grief, except maybe the high price tag in a year when there are so many other budget needs. However, an unrelated proposal could stir lawmakers into fierce debate. Envirocare of Utah wants to store Class B and C radioactive wastes, which are about 70 times hotter than the contaminated soils they now accept, called Class A wastes. To do that, they need the approval of the Legislature and the governor.
The company has already received the approval of Tooele County commissioners, and its license application to the Department of Environmental Quality will soon be available for public comment.
But what on paper looks like a straightforward process has already sparked concerns. The public hearing period on Envirocare's application does not end until two days after the end of the legislative session on Feb. 28. Company officials say Sen. Bill Wright, R-Elberta, has agreed to sponsor legislation that would clarify the Legislature's approval even if the public hearing process hasn't been completed. (Wright did not return Deseret News calls.)
That has some lawmakers and activists concerned. If lawmakers approve the license request, what then is the purpose of even having the public hearings, they ask.
Speaker of the House Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, told the Deseret News he does not favor changing the process just to push through a license for Envirocare. Stephens suggested a special legislative session to address the Envirocare issue, but company officials have adamantly opposed that idea.
Any special session would focus all legislative and media attention on the Envirocare proposal, something company officials fear could get out of hand.
Critics point out the irony that Utah lawmakers are even considering the Envirocare proposal at the same time they are pulling out all the stops to block high-level nuclear waste.
Envirocare President Charles Judd said the company must get legislative approval this session or the company may abandon its plans entirely. Other waste companies are trying to get into the Class B and C waste market, and any delays would put Envirocare at a competitive disadvantage.
"We don't want to wait, we need to get it done now," Judd said.
Envirocare and its owner, Khosrow Semnani, are major contributors to Utah political campaigns, both Republican and Democrat, and because of that they have easy access to lawmakers, critics say. The company also has a team of well-heeled lobbyists, some of them former lawmakers themselves, who know how to navigate the political quagmires surrounding waste issues.
Utah's current system that requires legislative and gubernatorial approval of waste disposal permits stems from the 1980s when large numbers of waste companies were targeting remote areas of Utah for storage of hazardous and nuclear wastes. While various county officials openly embraced the waste companies as economic development, Utah lawmakers were concerned about the emerging reputation of the state as a national dumping ground. Whether or not to allow any future dumps was a statewide policy decision requiring approval at the highest levels of state government, lawmakers decided.
Envirocare's timing could not have been worse. Leavitt's campaign to block high-level nuclear waste has garnered headlines and attention across the country, and many people do not understand the difference between the high-level waste from nuclear reactors and the Class B and C wastes from decommissioned power plants, research laboratories and hospitals.
Judd often uses an analogy involving a ruler. If the Class A wastes they now accept could be compared to a one-foot ruler, then B and C wastes would measure about 70 feet long. The spent nuclear fuel would be high-level waste stretching from Salt Lake City to Paris, France.
"It's like comparing a BB gun to a howitzer," agreed Leavitt. Yet the governor has indicated he does not support any changes to Utah's current law that would expedite Envirocare's request.