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State OKs controversial WIPP volume changes

Workers move a container laden with packages of radioactive waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad in January 2016. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The state Environment Department approved a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant permit modification request that will ultimately allow more waste to be placed in the underground repository for nuclear waste in southeast New Mexico.

The permit request, made jointly by the U.S. Department of Energy and WIPP operating and managing contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC, was approved by New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Butch Tongate Dec. 21.

The approval comes just days before Gov. Susana Martinez leaves office.

The controversial permit modification changes the way waste volume is calculated to exclude empty space inside waste packaging.

Environment Department officials were not available for comment Saturday and they did not respond to questions emailed to an agency spokeswoman.

But those opposed to the permit changes are speaking out.

“We’re very disappointed in the decision but not surprised because this was a decision the Martinez administration was rushing through to approve,” said Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center, one of the parties that argued against the proposal during October hearings in Carlsbad.

WIPP officials have said the changes will result in WIPP being just one-third full, instead of the current calculation of about half full. Under federal and state law, the facility is only permitted to store 6.2 million cubic feet of waste.

Parties have 30 days to appeal the decision.

“We will definitely be taking it to court and expect it to be overturned,” Hancock said.

In its comments submitted on the hearing officer’s report issued after the Carlsbad hearing, Hancock’s group pointed to what it calls erroneous information included in that report and in Tongate’s subsequent approval order.

“The haste to finalize the permit modification request… is evident in the number of errors in the Secretary’s Order Approving Draft Permit,” Santa Fe-based Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said in a news release.

The permit modification request was originally submitted in January. There has since been a 45-day public comment period, negotiations between stakeholders and a three-day public hearing in Carlsbad.

Opponents also worry this could be the first step in expanding WIPP’s mission to store other kinds of waste.