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Chapter 4
Health & Nuclear Safety

In the area of health and the environment, the 106th Congress got very little accomplished and nothing positive enacted. Sadly, the 106th Congress failed to move a bipartisan bill, written by Sens. Robert Smith (R-N.H.), Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), to encourage the cleanup of former industrial properties called "brownfields." Although it had the support of 67 cosponsors on both sides of the aisle, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) refused to advance this bill. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Smith also tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to advance a bill to address serious contamination problems stemming from methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) leaking from fuel supply systems into our water supply.

Lott, however, did manage to advance his own parochial interests by passing a rider that exempts scrap metal recyclers from superfund liability without ensuring that radioactive metal scrap metal will still be regulated under Superfund. Moreover, two other riders were enacted that delay the new arsenic and radon standards for drinking water. Finally, a bill sponsored by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), that would undermine pesticide protections for children, reared its ugly head but failed to get out of committee. And in a dramatic showdown, the Senate tried, but failed, to override the president's veto of Sen. Frank Murkowski's (R-Alaska) nuclear waste bill that would have sent our nation's nuclear waste to storage facilities in Nevada without ensuring adequate environmental protections.


"Brownfields Revitalization and Environmental Restoration Act of 2000" and "Community Revitalization and Brownfield Cleanup Act of 1999"
S. 2700, Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Robert Smith (R-N.H.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Max Baucus (D-Mont.); H.R. 1750, Rep. Edolphus Towns (R-N.Y.)
Status: Hearings held on S. 2700 in Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's Subcommittee on Superfund, Waste Control, and Risk Assessment; H.R. 1750 referred to the House Subcommittee on Finance and Hazardous Waste, and the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.
In many urban areas large tracts of abandoned industrial land have remained unused and unimproved for decades due to lack of incentives and safeguards for prospective buyers. However, legislation to provide such incentives must also ensure that these areas are cleaned up safely and adequately to protect public health and the local environment. Efforts to move an brownfields bill independent of a broader Superfund reauthorization stalled until a bipartisan group of Senators, including Republicans Smith and Chafee and Democrats Baucus and Lautenberg introduced a brownfields bill (S. 2700) that a number of environmental justice and environmental groups supported. The bill contained a number of important features that previous brownfields bills lacked, such as: narrowly-targeted liability provisions, substantial funding to improve public participation and site-related assessments and cleanup activities, and provisions that increase community involvement in brownfields cleanups and allow the preservation or creation of greenways and open spaces. While environmental groups voiced concern that the bill could allow federal funding to be awarded to states whose brownfields programs do not necessarily meet minimum federal criteria and that it would modify existing federal enforcement authority unnecessarily, these concerns were substantially outweighed by the many positive aspects of this legislation.

S. 2700 would provide much-needed funds for communities to revitalize and clean up contaminated property, and at the same time would create a framework for improving how these cleanups are conducted. It would provide financial resources in the form of grants, revolving loans and technical assistance grants (TAGs) to municipalities, non-profit organizations and community redevelopment groups for increased public participation and site-related assessment and cleanup activities. This assistance would help provide for meaningful community input in clean-up decisions that will have a significant effect on that community's quality of life. Numerous studies of clean-ups all across the country have demonstrated that early and frequent community participation results in better and more efficient clean-ups. Finally, the legislation would require that states work to develop and improve brownfields programs to satisfy important federal assessment, remediation, and public involvement criteria (or that the state has entered a separate agreement with EPA) as a condition of receiving federal grants.

Unfortunately, despite support from a bipartisan group of 67 Senators, this bill was held hostage by Senate Majority Leader Lott's (R-Miss.) promise to Sen. Michael Crapo (R-Idaho) that he would not move a brownfields bill that did not have Crapo's Superfund changes.

On the House side, Rep. Towns introduced H.R. 1750, a brownfields bill with 171 cosponsors, that was supported by the environmental community.

"Federal Reformulated Fuels Act of 2000"
S. 2962, Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.)
Status: Approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
The increased use of reformulated gasoline containing the additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) has significantly reduced air pollution in the United States. However, MTBE's solubility in water and resistance to degradation, and the prevalence of leaking underground and above-ground storage tanks and pipelines, has resulted in widespread contamination of groundwater and surface water in many regions of the country. The undesirable taste and smell of even very small concentrations of MTBE renders drinking water unusable. Given the important role that MTBE plays in reducing toxic air pollution, the removal of MTBE must be achieved carefully, balancing the need to address water contamination with the necessity that we do not sacrifice air quality.

With community drinking water supplies contaminated by MTBE from New York to California, intense political pressure was brought to bear on this Congress to take action. As a result, members introduced no less than 19 bills related to MTBE contamination this Congress. The intent of the bills varied widely and ranged from only imposing an immediate ban on MTBE to requiring the use of ethanol as an alternative. The House Commerce Committee tried in vain to bridge the divide between those who desired to ban MTBE immediately and those who wanted to impose an ethanol mandate, failing to develop viable legislation.

The Senate stepped into the void. Under Chairman Smith's guidance, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved an MTBE bill (S. 2962) with an 11 to 6 bipartisan vote. S. 2962 achieves a workable balance that is protective of public health and the environment and promotes renewable fuels to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and mitigate global warming. S. 2962 eliminates the use of MTBE in gasoline within four years, makes the federal Leaking Underground Storage Trust Fund more accessible to states for remediation of contaminated water, and also makes funds available for enforcement actions and cost recovery from those responsible for the contamination.

While MTBE is phased out, new gasoline formulas must meet stringent air quality performance standards designed to guarantee that air quality achievements to date are maintained. S. 2962 includes many, but not all, of the necessary safeguards against backsliding on air quality; the bill includes an aromatics cap and a process for ensuring there will not be increased toxic emissions from reformulated gasoline. Environmental and health organizations would like to have added protections to ensure: (1) conventional gasoline is not degraded; (2) repeal of the vapor pressure waiver unless EPA finds no associated decrease in air quality; (3) that EPA's mobile source title analysis and regulations process is shortened to five years; and (4) remediation and prevention of additional MTBE contamination from aboveground tanks and interstate/intrastate pipelines.

S. 2962 did not see floor action due largely to the difficulty of forging consensus between ethanol producing states that support the oxygenate requirement and states where MTBE contamination is a problem and supply of ethanol and other clean fuels is limited.


"Recycle America's Lands Act"
H.R. 1300, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.)
Status: Approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

"Superfund Program Completion Act of 1999"
S. 1090, Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.)
Status: Failed to achieve sufficient support during mark up in the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee

"Land Recycling Act of 1999"
H.R. 2580, Rep. Greenwood (R-Pa.)
Status: Approved by the House Commerce Committee
Early in the 106th Congress Sen. John Chafee, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, introduced a Superfund Reauthorization bill with the support of Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) and Majority Leader Lott (R-Miss.). After several years of unsuccessful efforts to reauthorize the program, S. 1090 was intended to be a more modest effort to reform the program. Nevertheless, despite their hard work, differences over how broad the bill should be proved insurmountable and the bill failed to achieve sufficient support to be reported out of committee. The Superfund/brownfields bill (H.R. 1300) that gained the greatest momentum in the first session of Congress was advocated relentlessly by Rep. Boehlert. With a large bipartisan group of sponsors of his bill, Rep. Boehlert persuaded the chairman and the ranking member of the transportation and infrastructure committee to advance his bill swiftly through committee. Its forward progress abruptly and permanently halted at the feet of the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas). Chairman Archer refused to move H.R. 1300 as long as it included the polluters' tax - the fee on chemical feedstocks that funds the Superfund clean-up program. To gain democratic support, Rep. Boehlert had included a provision to support reinstatement of these taxes, which lapsed in 1996. Without the tax revenue, the Superfund program is running out of money, and Congress is improperly shifting the costs of cleaning up abandoned contaminated sites from the polluters to the taxpayers. In FY 2000, Congress funded about half the program from U.S. taxpayers - ignoring the responsibility of the polluters for this contamination.

Not to be outdone by Rep. Boehlert and the Transportation Committee, Rep. Greenwood developed his own Superfund/brownfields bill, H.R. 2580, which was approved by the House Commerce Committee on October 13, 1999. Both H.R. 1300 and H.R. 2580 were disingenuously portrayed as 'brownfields bills" when they were really comprehensive efforts to undermine current protections in the Superfund program. Staff from the two committees tried unsuccessfully to merge their bills.

Both of these bills would undermine important environmental and health protections by creating lower clean-up standards, allowing for slower clean-ups, and creating incentives for increased litigation.

"Small Business Liability Relief Act"
H.R. 5175, Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio)
Status: Defeated on suspension calendar on 9/26 by vote of 253-161
At the tail end of the second session, Rep. Oxley pushed a bill to eliminate or decrease the liability of smaller businesses for their contamination at Superfund sites, even when they have deliberately violated the law. As introduced, the bill would create incentives for businesses to suppress information, force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reopen long-closed Superfund cases, and increase the delay and costs of cleaning up toxic wastes. It would also shift the cost of clean-ups from businesses to the American taxpayer.

In the waning days of the Congress, the republican leadership brought this controversial bill to a floor vote in a partisan manner under suspension of the normal rules of procedure. The democrats objected, with Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) stating that the bill was a "toxic combination" of bad policy and bad procedure.

Scrap Metal Recycling Exemption Rider
Sponsor: Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.)
Status: Enacted on 11/17/99 as part of H.R. 3194, the FY 2000 Omnibus Appropriations bill (Pub. L. No. 106-554)
Senate Majority Leader Lott attached a legislative rider to the FY 2000 omnibus spending bill that exempts scrap metal recyclers from Superfund liability. Environmental groups had one major concern with this rider, which is that it would also exempt radioactive scrap metal from Superfund's regulatory reach. In response to this concern, Sen. Lott agreed in a colloquy with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to ensure in the next legislative vehicle that his special exemption did not apply to radioactive scrap metal. However, Sen. Lott failed to make good on this promise.

Moreover, to advance his special scrap metal recyclers' exemption designed to benefit Mississippi scrap metal companies, Sen. Lott made a secret deal - revealed on the front pages of the Washington Post - with Sen. Michael Crapo (R-Idaho). Sen. Lott promised Sen. Crapo (who opposes moving targeted bills because he wants to completely overhaul the Superfund law and in doing so undermine meaningful environmental protections) that he would not allow a separate brownfields or even piecemeal Superfund legislation to move to the senate floor. This has created a roadblock for enacting meaningful brownfields legislation.


"School Environment Protection Act of 1999"
S. 1716, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.); HR 3275, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.)
Status: Referred to the Senate Agriculture Committee; Referred to the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition, and Forestry
The School Environment Protection Act of 1999 (S.1716, H.R. 3275) is comprehensive legislation to reduce pesticide use in educational facilities, while still allowing for pest elimination. The impetus behind the bill reflects the higher vulnerability of children to pesticides. Under the bill, local educational institutions must develop integrated pest management systems in their schools. Additionally, they must publicly declare the nature and extent of these systems at the beginning of each school year. The EPA Administrator is charged with establishing a National School Integrated Pest Management Advisory Board to review pesticides and rate appropriate uses for facilities. Additionally, the Administrator is directed to appoint an official for school pest management within the EPA Office of Pesticide Programs to coordinate activities between the advisory board and local educational agencies. Federal and local activities are funded through the proposed Integrated Pest Management Trust Fund.


"Regulatory Fairness and Openness Act"
H.R. 1592, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.); S.1464, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.)
Status: 9/7/00 House Agriculture Committee Markup Canceled; Referred to the Senate Agriculture Committee
The attacks on public health by the 106th Congress were not limited to hazardous waste. Members of Congress doing the bidding of powerful agricultural interests supported a bill that would seriously undermine pesticide protections for children adopted in 1996 as part of the landmark Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA). Rep. Pombo and Sen. Hagel sponsored a bill written by the pesticide industry to delay or eliminate crucial health protections for children.

These bills garnered the support of many members of congress - H.R. 1592 has 235 cosponsors, while S. 1464 has 39 - who may have failed to appreciate the scope and intent of the legislation. Seemingly benign, because they were primarily described as requiring procedural streamlining changes to the pesticide review process, the bills were attractive to many members from agricultural districts. In fact, these bills were serious threats to the environment and public health.

The bill would repeal several important children's health protection provisions of the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA), a law passed unanimously by the 104th Congress to implement key recommendations of a landmark National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report. Because pesticides are more likely to harm infants and children than adults and inadequate chemical-specific data can make it difficult to put a number on that increased risk, the NAS unanimously recommended, and FQPA mandates, a safety factor to be applied to pesticide use to protect infants and children. H.R. 1592 would essentially prohibit EPA from using this safety factor, gutting the FQPA's most important protection for children.

This bill also would remove any incentive for manufacturers, who do the vast majority of chemical testing, to fill the data gaps on the effect of their pesticides on children. It would undermine and delay the requirement that the EPA consider the cumulative effects of pesticides on kids, no matter what the source, an important new requirement of the FQPA. Moreover, this one-sided bill would expedite EPA action on registering new pesticides, or on getting more old pesticides on the market for so-called "emergencies" (which sometimes continue for years on end), while at the same time imposing a host of procedural roadblocks to more protective pesticide standards. Finally, H.R. 1592 would prohibit EPA from considering much of the scientific information available to assist in making decisions to set protective pesticide health standards. And by severely restricting the EPA from using modeling when setting protective standards, the legislation would force EPA to ignore known sources of pesticide exposure until it has precise data on the actual level of those exposures, while at the same time allowing EPA freely to rely on models that would allow more pesticide uses on the market.

At the very end of the second session, when Rep. Pombo reportedly obtained an agreement to take the bill to the House floor, vocal opposition from respected health, religious and environmental groups prevented it from advancing. The House Agricultural Committee - the committee most likely to advance the bill - abruptly canceled a scheduled vote on the bill.

Pesticide Fees Rider
Status: Enacted on 10/27/00 as part of H.R. 4635, the FY 2001 VA-HUD and Independent Agencies Appropriations bill (Pub. L. No. 106-377)
This rider could prevent the EPA from implementing needed pesticide protections because it prohibits funds for promulgating a new rule to implement changes in the payment of pesticide tolerance processing fees. Recognizing the large load of work facing the agency under the stronger safety standard put in place by Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) in 1996, Congress explicitly provided for increased fees in the new law, and allowed EPA to keep those fees to use for pesticide programs and FQPA implementation. The fee rule proposed last year to implement this provision would provide the Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) with an additional $20-$30 million for pesticide programs over the course of a full fiscal year. This rule was blocked last year, however, by a Congressional rider similar to this one. This rider would continue the resource squeeze in the pesticide program, at a time when the work of re-evaluating pesticides under a new standard is increasing the need for resources. This rider blocks the new rule that would provide additional, much needed funding for the pesticide program and could impact implementation of the FQPA. Although this rider remained in the law and it should have been removed, the administration negotiated for an increase in FY 2001 funds for EPA to ensure that the FQPA could be implemented. This stop-gap measure simply shifts the costs of this program from the pesticide companies to the public.




Arsenic Rider
Sponsor: Rep. James Gibbons (R-N.V.)
Status: Enacted on 10/27/00 as part of H.R. 4635, the FY 2001 VA-HUD and Independent Agencies Appropriations bill (Pub. L. No. 106-377)
Inserted by Rep. Gibbons, conference report language in the FY 2001 VA-HUD appropriations bill seeks to impede EPA from completing regulations that would substantially cut allowable levels of arsenic, a known human carcinogen, in tap water. It also "strongly urges" EPA to "cease all actions" enforcing even the incredibly weak current "interim" standard. The current arsenic standard was set in 1942, and EPA has now missed the last three statutory deadlines to update it.

In 1996 Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act and required EPA to propose a new standard for arsenic by January 1, 2000, and to finalize it one year later. The National Academy of Sciences released a report in 1999 that found that the current EPA arsenic in tap water standard is unsafe, and should be strengthened "as promptly as possible." Despite compelling scientific evidence that arsenic causes cancer and other diseases, the House Appropriations Committee believes that EPA's proposed standard of 5 parts per billion is unacceptable, because "the costs associated with having to mitigate this natural [sic] occurring substance twice [sic] is more than many of these communities can afford, and is not justified by any definitive health studies associated with the citizens located in any of these communities." This uninformed congressional second-guessing of the scientific findings of the National Academy of Sciences, EPA scientists, and virtually every independent expert on arsenic severely undercuts public health protection.

Efforts to remove this language from the bill by Reps. Hinchey (D-N.Y.), Brown (D-Ohio), and Waxman (D-Calif.) on the House floor on June 21, 2000 were unsuccessful. While proponents of stricter arsenic standards pointed to arsenic's proven carcinogenic effects and the need for the new drinking water protections, supporters of the rider cited the risks as too small to justify the expense to small communities to comply with the new standards by upgrading water treatment systems. The fact that the federal government would be responsible for much of these costs was a point that was never addressed on the floor. Debate over the expense of new arsenic standards to small communities was engaged along largely party lines. However, the Hinchey-Waxman-Brown amendment failed by a margin of 208-216 (with 10 abstentions.) The president signed the VA-HUD funding bill on October 27, 2000 with this rider included.

Radon Rider
Status: Language included in the conference report as part of the FY2001 VA-HUD and Independent Agencies Appropriations bill (Pub. L. No. 106-377)
The FY 2001 VA-HUD appropriations bill report language also "directs" EPA to delay promulgation of a drinking water standard for radon. In 1996, Congress' Safe Drinking Water Act amendments ordered EPA to issue a radon rule for tap water by August, 2000. As in the case of arsenic, this flies in the face of two 1999 National Academy of Sciences studies that found that radon is know to cause cancer in people, and poses very real risks, both in tap water and when it seeps into basements. Congressional attempts to block EPA's radon standard that is designed to protect public health by addressing this radioactive health threat in tens of millions of Americans' tap water are scientifically unjustifiable and undermine health protection.

During a colloquy on the original House language, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) attempted to clarify the language to ensure that it would not result in a delay of the standard. Unfortunately, while this language was included in the House conference report, it was changed during the final conference when another reporting requirement was added to the bill. The report due from the General Accounting Office re-opens the cost-benefit calculations of complying with the standard and will further delay EPA's ability to issue a radon standard.

Underground Injection Legislation
S. 724 , Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.)
Status: Referred to the Senate Environment Committee
To protect the nation's drinking water supplies, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was enacted in 1974. Among the regulations included in this piece of landmark legislation is a prohibition against the injection of substances into the ground that may contaminate the drinking water supply and thereby endanger public health. Among those actions regulated by SDWA is the injection into the ground of fluids, gels, and other foreign substances to aid in the extraction of oil and gas. The Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation, Inc. successfully sued the Environmental Protection Agency for not enforcing the injection provisions of the SDWA by approving Alabama's Underground Injection Control Program.

In response to this decision, Senators Inhofe and Jeff Sessions (R-Okla.) introduced S.724 to limit the reach of the Safe Drinking Water Act. This legislation excludes from the statutory definition of "underground injection" the underground injection of fluids or propping agents for oil or gas production activities. Sen. Inhofe stated that this bill "will help our domestic oil and gas industry by reducing one of the many regulatory burdens that they must comply with." The reality is, however, that the leakage of these materials into groundwater supplies - which 50 percent of all Americans rely on for their drinking water - can cause a grave threat to public health. This legislation is thinly-veiled attempt to undermine environmental protections for the benefit of the oil and gas industry. This bill has remained in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee since March 25, 1999.


"Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act"
H.R. 3377, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio); S. 2080, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
Status: Referred to the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health and Environment.; Referred to the Senate Agriculture Committee
In 1999, over 25 percent of corn and over 33 percent of soybeans grown were genetically engineered. With each growing season, the production of genetically modified food becomes more and more commonplace. Global consumers often wish to know if the food they eat contains or was produced with genetically engineered material. Religious and ethical considerations, as well as concerns about the environmental, economic and health implications of genetically engineered food drive the desire for consumers to know what they are eating. Many foreign countries including members of the European Union, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand have consumer "right-to-know" labeling laws for genetically engineered food.

In late 1999 and early 2000, two bills, H.R. 3377 and S. 2080, were introduced to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods and provide the public with needed right to know information. These bills, introduced by Rep. Kucinich and Sen. Boxer respectively, amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to require that food that contains a genetically engineered material, or that is produced with a genetically engineered material, must be labeled accordingly. Under the legislation all foods that have been altered at the molecular or cellular level by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes are considered genetically engineered or modified foods. H.R. 3377 and S. 2080 require labeling at each stage of the food production process. Most importantly, however, the mandatory labeling enacted by H.R. 3377 and S. 2080 provides the public with right to know information that would otherwise be lacking. Sen. Boxer stresses that, "the bill does not promote or disparage food products containing genetically engineered material. It merely ensures that consumers have the right to know when a food product contains such material." The Boxer bill authorizes $5 million in research funding.


"National Uniformity for Food Act of 1999"
S. 1155, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.); H.R. 2129, Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.)
Status: Approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee; Referred to the House Commerce Committee
Introduced by Sen. Roberts on May 29, 1999 and Rep. Burr on June 10, 1999, the "National Uniformity of Food Act of 2000," would nullify dozens of pro-consumer state and local statutes, regulations, and ordinances. For years, consumers have relied on state and local labeling requirements and safety standards to fill regulatory gaps left by the FDA. Now with the help of the bill's sponsors, the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the dietary supplement industry are pressuring Congress to exempt them from these important consumer safeguards. Their goal is to avoid complying with any state and local consumer protections that are stronger or more protective of consumers than what the FDA requires - even in areas, such as dietary supplements, where the FDA has very limited authority to regulate and very few resources to enforce existing protections.

This legislation would imperil crucial state requirements for warning labels on shellfish, which frequently contain pathogens that can cause illness and death. It would also leave the dietary supplement industry almost entirely unregulated. The FDA has little regulatory authority over dietary supplements, and several states have attempted to fill this gap. However, this bill could invalidate measures like Texas' warning label requirement for ephedrine - a supplement that has been associated with hundreds of serious illnesses and several deaths. And it would thwart state attempts to require labeling of genetically engineered foods and foods that contain ingredients that have undergone irradiation, even though consumers overwhelmingly support such requirements.




"Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments of 1999"
S. 1287, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska); H.R. 45, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.)
Status: Senate failed to override the President's veto
Over the vocal objections of Sen. Harry Reid (D-N.V.), Sen. Richard Bryan (D-N.V.), Rep. Berkley (D-N.V.) and Rep. Gibbons (R-N.V.), the 106th Congress passed a nuclear waste bill that authorizes the shipment and storage of nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Driven by frustration with the failure of the federal government to find a solution to the nation's nuclear waste disposal needs, on February 10, 2000, the Senate approved Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Murkowski's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage bill by a vote of 64 to 34. The House passed this bill by a vote of 253-167 on March 22, 2000.

The Nevada delegation was united in its opposition to this legislation, because it mandates that much of the nation's nuclear waste be moved to their state before the Yucca Mountain site has been authorized and demonstrated to be safe. Sen. Reid described the bill from his perspective, saying "S. 1287 is all about lowering health and safety standards relevant to nuclear waste." President Clinton made good on his promise to veto this bill on April 25, 2000; the Senate tried and failed to override this veto on May 2, 2000 by a vote of 64 to 35.

Environmentalists opposed the bill, because it would have delayed EPA's authority to set strong land and water radiation protections for the proposed permanent nuclear disposal facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for one year or until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission agrees with the EPA's standard. It also would allow nuclear waste to be transported to the proposed permanent storage site at Yucca Mountain as early as 2007, before the permanent facility is ready. Provisions in the bill would make interim temporary waste storage more likely, even though the express interim storage provisions were dropped. Moving all this waste to an interim site elevates the risk of leaks and spills and other accidental releases, and there is concern with the environmental condition of the interim storage facility. Moreover, the Department of Energy's (DOE) own data show that water could seep through the mountain and contaminate the only aquifer in the region (the area's sole water source), and at remarkably fast rates. These geological problems show that fundamental questions need to be answered before final plans are made to move America's nuclear waste.

The bill also represents a dangerous reversal of U.S. non-proliferation policy. It would establish an "Office of Spent Nuclear Fuel Research" whose mission would be to research and develop technologies to reprocess irradiated nuclear fuel. These technologies could be used to produce weapons-usable material and are contrary to more than two decades of U.S. non-proliferation policy. The legislation would encourage overseas proliferation of nuclear reprocessing by creating incentives and perhaps even funding for foreign countries to conduct similar reprocessing research, which in turn will increase the risk that weapons-usable nuclear materials will fall into the wrong hands. Finally, the bill also revives a failed and expensive technology. Research and development will be mandated on both accelerator and reactor-based transmutation; accelerator-based transmutation is estimated to cost $40 billion, and reactor-based transmutation is a revival of the nuclear breeder reactor project killed by Congress in 1994.



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