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WIPP Proved Richardson as Compromise Artist

By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Investigative Reporter
    Even before his election to Congress in 1982, Bill Richardson was in a box over an issue that would dog him for nearly two decades.
    It was the opening near Carlsbad of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground landfill for plutonium-contaminated waste and other radioactive materials used in building nuclear weapons.
    How Richardson handled the issue is an illustration of his pragmatic political style.
    Many voters in his district and elsewhere in New Mexico supported WIPP because of the needed disposal space, jobs the plant would create and other economic benefits.
    But others— notably in Albuquerque and Richardson's left-leaning adopted hometown of Santa Fe— were opposed because of environmental and safety concerns.
    "I've got people in Carlsbad mad at me for delaying it (WIPP's opening), and I've got some of you mad at me for not doing enough to kill it," Richardson said in 1988. "I'm in the middle getting squeezed to death."
    During his first run for the House in 1980 and again during the 1982 campaign that sent him to Congress, Richardson said he opposed WIPP.
    But his position softened over the ensuing years, demonstrating Richardson's ability to mold a compromise position that gives each side something but not one side everything— and allows Richardson to escape with his political hide.
    WIPP supporters got what they wanted most— the opening of the plant in 1999.
    For those people who had environmental concerns, Richardson fought for and got beefed-up safety rules for the operation of WIPP.
    He also helped secure hundreds of millions of federal dollars in compensation for New Mexico hosting the plant and to improve highways on which the waste would be trucked.
    Melanie Kenderdine, who worked on Richardson's staff in the House, said the congressman practiced the art of compromise in the WIPP controversy.
    "That type of ability is very important to good governance," Kenderdine said.
    WIPP is a Department of Energy facility. Ironically, Richardson, then out of Congress, was energy secretary on the day the plant received its first shipment of waste in March 1999.