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Waste storage bills amounted to waste of time, critics say

Critics of toxic wastes coming to Utah went into the session optimistic lawmakers would take action, any action, to help the state shed its image as the nation's dumping ground.

What they got, it seems, was a waste of time. Almost all of the 16 bills that would have regulated, curtailed, taxed or banned certain wastes died with a whimper.

"The public was hoping for something meaningful, but what we got was something meaningless," said Jason Groenewold, director of Families Against Incinerator Risk.

No ban on hotter radioactive wastes, called Class B and C wastes. No fees collected for the cost of securing high-level nuclear waste shipments through Utah. No real interest in toughening Utah waste laws.

Instead, lawmakers agreed to spend the next two years studying waste issues, making recommendations to the 2005 Legislature on what to do with the nasty waste products finding their way to Utah. Lawmakers have studied it before without resolution, which does not portend well for the new waste task force.

Utah's waste companies say the study will allow them to make their case that they already pay more than their fair share of taxes and fees and that additional financial burdens threaten their survival.

The one bright spot for anti-waste activists was a bill sponsored by Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas, that increases the fees paid on radioactive waste by 50 percent and the fees paid by hazardous waste companies by almost 100 percent.

That will raise about $2.8 million more a year for state coffers. But nobody really knows the financial impact. Those fees could be adjusted up or down depending on what the task force recommends.

One target of the fee increases was Envirocare of Utah, the nation's only commercial waste dump for low-level Class A radioactive wastes.

Envirocare has publicly stated it would not oppose the higher fees so long as it was applied equally to all Utah companies, including a uranium mill in San Juan County that accepts for recycling the same kinds of waste going to Envirocare.

But company officials say it will shoulder an unfair tax burden as a result of anti-waste hysteria.

"Envirocare is the most heavily taxed company in the state," said Julie Blake, vice president of marketing. "Fear and intimidation about our company and industry has caused lawmakers and the public to think that what Envirocare does is more dangerous than it actually is."

As a result, she added, the company will pay at least another 8 percent above what other Utah corporations pay in state taxes and fees. "I doubt any company to incur that burden would not be hurt. We're looking at a range of cost cutting measures to absorb the cost."

Ure's bill was changed to give Envirocare a break on existing cleanup contracts with the federal government, a provision that had some critics crying foul. But all future Envirocare contracts will come with the added fees.

All told, Envirocare's state taxes and fees will go from $6.4 million now to $8 million after the new law takes effect, Blake said.

Hazardous waste giant Clean Harbors, which owns a dump and an incinerator in Tooele County, will see its fees raised from $14 a ton to $28 a ton, and will also pay a 3 percent gross receipts tax. The company told lawmakers that increase will put it out of business.

Bills that would have banned outright hotter radioactive wastes were tossed in the scrap heap. Envirocare wants to accept the Class B and C wastes, primarily the byproducts of the decommissioning of nuclear power plants.

Rep. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, had wanted the state to look into the possibility of storing spent nuclear fuel rods, something he said could have generated billions of dollars for Utah schools. But he got crossways with Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who has spent the past decade fighting a plan by Utah Goshutes to locate a high-level nuclear waste dump on tribal lands in Tooele County.

Leavitt used his political muscle to silence the proposal, saying it would be hypocritical for the state to take the deadliest wastes known to man after telling the Goshutes they could not store that same waste.

Urquhart abandoned his bill, but plans to informally ask the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration to look into suitable sites for such a dump.

"SITLA is well aware of my thoughts on this issue," said Leavitt. "There is no place in Utah where it could or should be stored."

It wasn't just the nasty wastes on lawmakers' agenda.

Sen. Bill Wright, R-Elberta, won reluctant support for a tax on commercial and demolition wastes. The state would collect 50 cents per ton on construction-related wastes dumped at commercial landfills. That would generate about $530,000 a year into an environmental restricted account for oversight.

Lawmakers also took no action to reform how wastes are regulated or to limit state regulators from going to work for waste companies — issues pushed by a coalition of waste-reform advocates.

"We had hoped we would have seen some real progress rather than dodging the issues and study them," said Steve Erickson of Citizens Education Project and lobbyist for the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club. "But it's certainly not surprising."