clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Outright nuclear-waste ban fails

A sign along U-196 warns that the transport of high-level nuclear waste is prohibited except by permit. The route leads into the Goshute Indian Reservation in Skull Valley.
A sign along U-196 warns that the transport of high-level nuclear waste is prohibited except by permit. The route leads into the Goshute Indian Reservation in Skull Valley.
Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

After nearly four hours of discussion and some fierce public comments, a legislative task force voted Tuesday against recommending an outright ban on future shipments of certain types of radioactive waste into Utah.

Present state law requires an act of the Legislature and concurrence of the governor before types B and C low-level radioactive waste can be imported for disposal. Proponents of stronger language wanted an outright ban without the option of company going to the Legislature and seeking that permission.

They charged that instead of banning those wastes, present law sets up a mechanism for petitioning to import it.

The joint task force on Hazardous Waste Regulation and Tax Policy nearly passed a recommendation that the tougher language be incorporated into law. By one vote, House of Representative members voted for it, and by one, the Senate members opposed.

The split meant the task force could not recommend that bill.

Instead, the group voted to adopt a draft report crafted over the past two years, leaving intact the present requirement. It also asks for more oversight by the Division of Environmental Quality into the record-keeping by waste handlers and more control over hazardous but non-radioactive waste.

The panel recommended that mixed wastes received from the federal government should no longer be exempt from state tax. Mixed waste has both hazardous chemicals and radioactive elements. Material of this type coming from the national government is a relatively small part of the operation of Envirocare of Utah.

The main battle concerned the variety of low-level radioactive waste labeled B and C grade, which are "hotter" than the A material accepted by Envirocare at its Tooele County disposal site.

B and C waste are classified as low-level radioactive, but activist Jason Groenewold of HEAL Utah said, "It's not low hazard. It can be quite dangerous." A and B waste have contaminated parts of nuclear power plants but aren't as highly radioactive as spend fuel rods, he said.

He contended the task force should have taken strong action on B and C waste and tightened regulatory rules.

"I'm very disappointed" in the task force's action, said Sen. Patrice M. Arent, D-Salt Lake. Leader of the battle for a bill banning B and C waste, she vowed to keep fighting.

"The fact is, B and C waste is banned today," said Sen. Curtis S. Bramble, R-Provo, co-chairman of the group. "It is illegal to bring it in."

Bramble cited these concerns with the proposed ban: questions about the constitutionality of trying to tie the hands of future Legislatures, questions about whether the state can interfere with interstate commerce, and threats of litigation by the industry.

If the existing rule isn't sufficient, he said, "then nothing else we could do, including the bill today, could make any difference."

Robert Rees, the Legislature's associate general council, said he did not think a ban would pose a serious constitutional problem.

Tim Barney, senior vice president of Envirocare, said the task force "took a lot of actions adverse to us. They raised our taxes, they imposed additional regulatory restraints and they drew a box around our business" concerning what kind of material Envirocare could accept.

Barney said he thought panel members were sincere and cared deeply about the issues.

During the debate, Rep. David L. Hogue, R-District 52, said Envirocare is not the evil empire. "We produce B and C waste" in Utah, he said.

"I feel a little bad because this discussion now is aimed at Envirocare and what they're doing," said Rep. Joseph G. Murray, R-District 8. The panel has seen the company's operation and feels good about what they do with Class A waste.

"But this is another ball game," he said, referring to B and C. The people, the Legislature and the governor do not want it, he added.

Arent said, "I am not trying to beat up on any company. . . . I don't care what company wants to bring this in. I don't want it."

Heidi Gillette, a Salt Lake mother, said Utahns expect the Legislature "to put the strongest possible language" into law, barring B and C. Also, for other waste that is accepted, she said, "we should raise the fees to the highest possible" level, consistent with what other states are doing. "We are not a dumping ground."

James O'Neal, a political consultant from Provo, said the recommendation ultimately approved was "lukewarm."

If the proposal was to allow gambling, task force members would be out on the street screaming and carrying placards, he said. Tax on radioactive waste is blood money and cancer money, he charged.