WASHINGTON – Rep. Steve Pearce’s attempt to allow more plutonium-contaminated waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad ran into a roadblock in the U.S. Senate this week, sparking unusual finger-pointing and recriminations between Pearce and the office of Sen. Tom Udall.
With the 2013 legislative clock ticking, House and Senate negotiators reached agreement late Monday on a compromise National Defense Authorization Act. The bipartisan proposal, which still needs approval of both chambers of Congress, did not include Pearce’s amendment to expand the WIPP mission, although it was in the original House-passed version of the bill.
WIPP currently only accepts transuranic, or plutonium-contaminated, waste from Department of Energy nuclear weapons work. Pearce’s amendment would have allowed WIPP to accept similar waste from new government sources.
In a statement provided to the
Journal late Tuesday, Pearce said Udall wasn’t clear with New Mexicans about his position on his proposal and suggested he didn’t work to protect his amendment in House-Senate negotiations. Pearce is the New Mexico congressional delegation’s only Republican, and Udall is a Democrat.
Pearce cited a Tuesday article in the Weapons Complex Monitor, a trade publication, that quoted a New Mexico environmental activist as saying Udall had worked against Pearce’s proposal in the Senate.
“Why did Senator Udall’s office deny he was opposed to the WIPP language when today it has been published he told environmental activists in Santa Fe that he was opposed all along?” Pearce asked. “His action will now hurt jobs in Carlsbad and prevent cleanup of waste at Los Alamos. The senator should explain himself to the citizens of New Mexico.”
Udall spokeswoman Jennifer Talhelm disavowed the activist’s quote in the Weapons Complex Monitor and said she had lodged a complaint with the publication.
“Sen. Udall never told environmental activists he was opposed to Rep. Pearce’s amendment,” Talhelm said.
But she criticized Pearce’s amendment at the same time. Talhelm said Udall had been working behind the scenes to offer a Senate substitute to Pearce’s amendment before negotiators announced Monday that most amendments would be barred. Pearce and Udall had not spoken about the issue in the days leading up to Tuesday’s dustup.
“Rep. Pearce’s bill was poorly drafted and would hurt New Mexico and New Mexico jobs,” Talhelm said. “Sen. Udall was in the process of working to improve the amendment to expand WIPP’s mission, to preserve New Mexico jobs and protect the cleanup effort at Los Alamos.”
Talhelm said Udall could “support the disposal of a finite amount of civilian (transuranic) waste at WIPP as long as it doesn’t displace defense waste slated to be disposed of at WIPP.” She said defense waste could pile up at LANL if it were displaced by other types of government waste.
Pearce has argued his amendment would keep WIPP viable for years to come and provide good jobs in southeastern New Mexico. It also would help move radioactive waste out of other, less secure sites, he contends.
Udall’s office told the Journal in June – and reiterated this week – that he wasn’t flatly opposed to expanding WIPP’s mission, but that the idea needed more detailed review from local stakeholders and the Department of Energy before he could endorse it.
The public sniping between Udall and Pearce was a rare development among members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, who generally try to present a united front in Congress and keep differences out of public view.
Meanwhile, Sen. Martin Heinrich’s spokeswoman told the Journal on Tuesday that Heinrich had supported Pearce’s proposal. Heinrich co-sponsored similar legislation with Pearce when he served in the U.S. House.
Neither Udall nor Heinrich lobbied for inclusion of Pearce’s amendment in the current compromise defense bill.
Heinrich spokeswoman Whitney Potter said the Department of Energy is completing a report on future disposal of low-level radioactive waste, a broad category that includes the civilian transuranic waste. DOE has identified WIPP as one of the possible disposal options.
“Senator Heinrich is open to considering legislative options based on the science and data produced in the forthcoming report,” Potter said. “He feels strongly that the legislative process be adhered to and allow for public involvement and transparency.”
Meanwhile, Pearce fumed about the fate of his amendment.
“The House unanimously passed this amendment five months ago – it is unconscionable that the Senate would target this commonsense and uncontroversial proposal at the eleventh hour,” Pearce said. “The Senate owes an explanation to the people of New Mexico, who will bear the costs of this irresponsible decision.”
Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway, who traveled to Washington this week with other Carlsbad officials to lobby for the Pearce amendment, said he was disappointed in the turn of events.
“We are very disappointed … not only for New Mexico but for the country as a whole, and encourage our congressional delegation to work together on this important provision,” Janway said.