Sep 6, 2007

State seeks comments on waste permit

ROGER SNODGRASS Monitor Assistant Editor

After a lengthy gestation period, a state permit related to hazardous waste operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory was released in draft form last week. A 60-day public comment phase will now follow, although an environment department official suggested Tuesday that the current deadline of Oct. 26 may be extended.

"Our decisions are invariably better when we get meaningful public comment," said James Bearzi, chief of the hazardous waste bureau and the state's point man for environmental regulation at the lab.

Along with comments, the department will consider any requests for a public hearing and decide if a hearing should be held.

Bearzi said if there are requests for extension, "we will look favorably on those requests."

If there is a public hearing, it is likely to take place next year, he said.

After the comments, Bearzi said, "We'll see if there is something we can use to make a better permit."

The 1,500-page document was drafted by employees of the bureau, based on an application that has been prepared by LANL, parts of which have been in the works for many years.

Laboratory spokesman James Rickman said this morning that the new permit would provide a framework for hazardous waste activities at the lab.

"The laboratory believes that public participation is an extremely important component of the permitting process and we encourage the public to avail itself of the opportunity to provide comments to the draft," he said. "We are reviewing the document in its entirety and will be providing comments as appropriate."

The existing permit dates from 1989 and would have expired in 1999, but has been administratively extended until a new 10-year permit can be issued.

The New Mexico Environment Department's authority to regulate hazardous waste stems from a 1976 federal law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), along with the state's Hazardous Waste Act.

RCRA provides "cradle to grave" authority for permitting treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous waste, and is also the basic authority underlying the Consent Order that governs an ongoing comprehensive environmental cleanup program at Los Alamos.

A final permit, not expected to be approved until 2009, will allow the laboratory to store hazardous wastes on-site for more than 90 days. As a generator and handler of hazardous wastes, the lab is classified as a hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facility (TSDF) under the two laws.

Among the provisions of the new permit is the complete closure of the current low-level radiological waste storage area known as Area G. The laboratory's plans to open a new storage area in Technical Area 54, designated Zone 4, but that would not subject to the state law as long as no hazardous wastes are stored or buried there. Radiological wastes are self-regulated by the Department of Energy.

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said he would be among those calling for a public meeting and an extension to the public comment period although he was skeptical that either would get to the heart of the matter.

"Nobody should think that the successful issuance of a RCRA permit and compliance with NMED consent order will protect the environment or produce environmental cleanup," he said. "It's possible to leave most waste in place and to continue dumping nuclear waste and be in full compliance with both the Consent Order and RCRA."

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