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Public to have say in WIPP’s rule change

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Department of Energy will not have an easy path to bringing 3.1 million gallons of radioactive waste from its Hanford Washington site to New Mexico.

The DOE in March asked the New Mexico Environment Department for quick approval to a rule change to allow the waste, currently prohibited, to be sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad.

In response, the Environment Department announced Monday afternoon that its answer was neither “yes” nor “no” to the proposal. Instead, it invoked a rule that triggers a potentially lengthy public hearing process before any decision can be made. The decision “will ensure that the public’s views are carefully considered before a final decision on the modification request is made,” Environment Secretary-designate Ryan Flynn said in a statement.

DOE spokeswoman Deb Gill would not comment Monday beyond saying the federal agency is evaluating the state’s decision.

The action comes as the Department of Energy is under pressure from officials in Washington and Oregon to remove waste from the sprawling Hanford nuclear reservation amid reports that waste tanks there are leaking. Established during World War II, Hanford manufactured plutonium for U.S. nuclear weapons and is now the nation’s most expensive nuclear cleanup site.

In announcing the proposal in March, the Energy Department issued a statement that it believed the waste in question “may be properly and legally classified” as meeting disposal requirements for shipment to WIPP. But New Mexico officials have argued otherwise, adding provisions to WIPP’s state permit in 2004 to explicitly prohibit sending the waste to New Mexico.

Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, a group spearheading opposition, praised the decision to call for public hearings on the proposal.

“I’m glad this time that they recognized that it is of significant public interest,” Hancock said Monday.

Flynn said that no firm time line has been set, but that a final decision would likely take more than a year.