A Senate committee narrowly approved a bill Monday that would remove the governor's ability to unilaterally veto the siting or expansion of waste disposal facilities in Utah.

Critics of Envirocare, the low-level radioactive waste disposal company based in Tooele County, say the bill is intended to benefit that company.

But Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, sponsor of SB70, insisted that's not the case. Rather, it was prompted by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s announcement last November that he would not approve the Envirocare's doubling in size, he said. That caused Stephenson to consider addressing what he believes is an imbalance in the approval process.

The present law sets up three hoops for a company to jump through before it can site a new waste disposal facility or increase operations: regulatory approval, an OK by the Legislature and the governor's authorization.

In dealing with other legislation, Stephenson said, if the governor vetoes a measure, the Legislature can override the veto by a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

During a session of the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee, Stephenson said with the present law, "We (legislators) essentially gave the office of the governor absolute power in the permitting process."

The same requirement does not apply with business licenses or professional licensing, he added. Suppose the Legislature reviewed every cosmetology license "and then the governor had to approve or disapprove it as well."

But Jason Groenewold, director of the anti-nuclear group Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, responded that these decisions aren't like getting a bad facial that can be redone. Radioactive material can affect the state for thousands of years, he said.

Groenewold said Stephenson is president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, a group to which Envirocare contributes financially. "It just doesn't look right" that he sponsors a bill that could help Envirocare double its size, he said.

"I don't know of anyone with more integrity than Mr. Stephenson," responded Sen. Darin Peterson, R-Nephi. "This man is not doing this because Envirocare asked him."

Stephenson denounced the "innuendo" linking Envirocare's membership in the taxpayers association to the bill. The company's dues are "less than one-half of 1 percent of our budget," he said.

"I wasn't conscious of that when I sponsored the bill," he said, noting his proposal is "the right thing to do" in restoring the Legislature's prerogatives.

Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, said it's hard to understand why high-level waste is not in the bill, if it's all about legislative prerogatives.

"It seems to me like this (present) process is working," he added.

Stephenson said that his bill would not remove the concurrence requirement for high-level nuclear waste. His bill concerns household waste, construction waste and low-level radioactive waste.

Envirocare did not send a representative to speak at the committee meeting. But Claire Geddes, a Cottonwood resident and activist, said it's "very difficult for me to think they wouldn't want this."

Geddes added, "This is an end run around the process and an end run around the governor. . . . This law has stood since 1990. I've never heard it questioned."

Anita Davis, a Salt Lake resident, said Envirocare may be the only company open to two-thirds of the country's radioactive waste. "This is the reason they want to expand," she said.

"This is legislation would really fault the democratic process that is already in place and approved by everyone," charged Anne Sward Hansen.

The bill advanced to the full Senate by a 3-2 vote. Voting to remove this authority from the Republican governor were three Republicans, Sen. Michael Waddoups of West Jordan; Sen. Tom Hatch of Panguitch, and Peterson. Supporting the governor's authority were two Democrats, McCoy and Sen. Fred Fife of Salt Lake.

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