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Backroom Deal: Congress OKs Abandoning Highly Radioactive Waste in South Carolina and Idaho, Threatening Drinking Water Supplies

Provision Attached to Defense Authorization Bill Would Reverse Two Decades of Nuclear Waste Cleanup Policy

Statement by Geoffrey Fettus, NRDC senior project attorney

WASHINGTON (October 8, 2004) -- Congress is poised to send a bill to the president that would reverse more than two decades of nuclear waste cleanup policy without public hearing or debate. Legislators included a provision (Section 3116) in the 2005 Defense authorization bill that would change the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, allowing the Department of Energy (DOE) to reclassify lethal high-level radioactive waste in South Carolina as "waste incidental to reprocessing." The language, which was written by DOE and originally added by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), would allow the agency to abandon millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste in leaking tanks in South Carolina and Idaho, and would set a precedent for the massive cleanup of radioactive waste in the state of Washington. (As of 5 pm today neither chamber of Congress had sent the final bill to the president, but conference committee staffers told NRDC that both could act before Congress adjourns tonight.)

The following is a statement by Geoffrey Fettus, senior project attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council:

"Over the strong objections of several states, two tribal nations, many legislators and the general public, Congress is trying to throw out more than two decades of nuclear waste cleanup law, in flagrant disregard of public health. Congress did this behind closed doors, with no debate or public input, attaching it to an unrelated bill, one designed to support our troops.

"In order to give the Energy Department authority it couldn't get from a court of law, Congress has placed critical South Carolina and Idaho drinking water sources at risk of radioactive contamination.

"Legislators from Idaho and South Carolina are jeopardizing the health of their own constituents by allowing the Energy Department to avoid cleaning up millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste in corroding tanks next to drinking water supplies.

"This back-room legislative fix would leave a legacy of radioactive contamination that could endanger drinking water for millions of Americans."


Background

DOE is responsible for cleaning up 253 underground tanks containing approximately 100 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste in Washington, Idaho, South Carolina and New York. In July 2003, the chief federal district judge in Idaho ruled that DOE's reclassification scheme was unlawful. The court ruling prohibited DOE from arbitrarily "reclassifying" high-level radioactive waste as "waste incidental to reprocessing" and abandoning it beneath a layer of grout in corroding tanks. DOE appealed the federal district court decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. Oral argument was just held in Seattle on October 5, 2004. Six states (South Carolina, Washington, Idaho, New York, Oregon and New Mexico) supported upholding the district court ruling. Congress has now passed legislation that threatens that ruling for Idaho and South Carolina.

Related Documents
Judge's decision, July 2003, in PDF format, 100k

Related NRDC Pages
July 3, 2003, Court Rules Energy Department Reclassification of Nuclear Waste Illegal
NRDC Press Backgrounder: Energy Department Reclassifies High Level Waste to Avoid Cleanup

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 1 million members and e-activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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