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Editorial: WIPP deal puts feds on notice, cash in NM

One big hurdle on the road to reopening the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in southeastern New Mexico was cleared last week when the state and the feds finalized a $74 million settlement to the state’s benefit.

Two agreements between the New Mexico Environment Department and the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractors resolve violations that contributed to a Feb. 14, 2014, radiation leak at WIPP and a truck fire in the underground repository earlier that same month. The leak was caused by a chemical reaction in an improperly packed drum of mixed radioactive waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The $74 million negotiated agreement resolves past and potential future violations related to the leak, and sets out corrective actions LANL and WIPP must take to resolve permit violations.

State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said much of the settlement money is coming from a performance bonus that was withheld from LANL’s contractor – not additional money from the pockets of taxpayers.

Most of the money will be used for road and water projects, including $34 million for roads in southeastern New Mexico, $12 million for roads around Los Alamos, and $20 million to repair water infrastructure in Los Alamos and improve regional water quality.

WIPP, the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste from past weapons work, has been closed since the incidents. DOE officials have said it might be back in business by the end of this year after a cleanup estimated to cost U.S. taxpayers at least $500 million.

The state’s get-tough-with-the-feds stance was the right one to take, especially given the poor performance of the contractor and lack of effective oversight by the DOE – all stemming from an attitude that “it can never happen.”

This settlement should put the federal government on notice that, while New Mexico welcomes WIPP and the labs – and recognizes the critical roles they play in keeping the nation secure for all Americans – they should operate safely and competently in our backyard.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.