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Huntsman Lets Radioactive-Waste Bill Become Law

Huntsman Lets Radioactive-Waste Bill Become Law

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Gov. Jon Huntsman refused Tuesday to sign or veto a bill allowing for the expansion of a radioactive-waste dump in Utah's west desert.

Huntsman's inaction means the measure will become law, giving EnergySolutions an easier time at winning approval to nearly double the capacity of its landfill about 72 miles west of Salt Lake City.

Huntsman, however, vowed to take other steps to limit the radioactive waste sent to Clive, Utah, where EnergySolutions operates the country's largest and only privately owned radioactive-waste dump. The dump, which opened in 1988 with virtually no regulation, primarily takes tainted soil and debris from decommissioned power plants and defense depots.

"I take very seriously my responsibility to ensure that our state will not become the dumping ground of other states' nuclear waste," Huntsman said in a statement. "I remain committed to fighting increased volumes of waste."

Huntsman said he would ask the eight-state Northwest Interstate Low-Level Waste Compact to stop sending waste to EnergySolutions once the dump fills to currently approved volumes, before any expansion.

Huntsman, who was returning from Washington, D.C., sent his environment chief to a news conference and released the statement just after the Legislature finished its business for the day.

The Legislature approved the measure by a veto-proof two-thirds majority in each house, and leaders said they were prepared to override any veto from the governor. His refusal to sign or veto the bill was highly unusual, something that Huntsman, a Republican who took office in 2004, vowed never to do.

On Tuesday, Huntsman said EnergySolutions, which got its start as Envirocare of Utah in 1988, had "grandfather status" that exempted it from political vetting for changes at its licensed dump. Legislators said they inadvertently erased that grandfather status when they rewrote a radioactive-waste law in 2004

Huntsman said Senate Bill 155 was "simply a technical clarification" to restore an exemption for EnergySolutions allowing it to avoid having to ask the governor or Legislature for permission to pile waste higher on sections of its mile-square landfill.

The decision shocked a public-health group that has long been critical of EnergySolutions.

"With his decision, Gov. Huntsman has weakened his own ability and future governors abilities to say 'no' to EnergySolutions' ambitions to take hotter waste," said Vanessa Pierce, executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, known as HEAL Utah.

A year ago, Huntsman vetoed a bill that would have cut him -- but not the Legislature -- out of EnergySolutions regulatory affairs, saying it would undermine his authority to protect Utah's image and environment.

"This is a complete 180," said Pierce, who gave Huntsman credit for vowing to block EnergySolutions in other ways. "That is a piece of good news."

EnergySolutions said it was still a highly regulated company with a stellar safety record.

"Consistent with the governor's statement, EnergySolutions from the beginning has characterized this bill as a clarification of current practice," said Greg Hopkins, a senior vice president at the Salt Lake City-based company. "EnergySolutions thanks the Legislature, the Attorney General and the Tooele County Commissioners for their overwhelming support of this bill and for their efforts to research the facts."

The company is a generous political donor in Utah and says it doesn't apologize for that. It doled out $189,020 in political donations last year in Utah, including money to 75 of 104 legislators, according to filings at the lieutenant governor's office.

Lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, have repeatedly rejected any suggestion EnergySolutions got its way because of special influence.

"I believe campaign contributions have the ability to have access to legislators," Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said when the Senate acted Feb. 7. "But I can tell you very, very candidly that the most important people for me are the people who elected me."

Regulators, meanwhile, will remain in charge of initially approving dumps, and they already have approved EnergySolutions' upward expansion on the engineering merits but haven't issued a license.

The regulators agreed that the company could safely merge two waste cells into one supercell. EnergySolutions wants to fill in the middle and pile waste 83 feet high, up from the 47 feet currently allowed.

The expansion would let EnergySolutions take 9.8 million cubic yards of radioactive waste from 5.5 million cubic yards currently licensed, said Dianne Nielson, executive director of the Utah Division of Environmental Quality.

Nielson said one of the radioactive waste cells at issue was 72 percent full under current rules. She said another cell was only 1 percent filled to capacity. Both could expand.

The new law carves the governor, Legislature and Tooele County out of the regulatory approvals needed for EnergySolutions to pile the waste higher.

Huntsman, meanwhile, announced he would use other executive authorities in an effort to block EnergySolutions from taking any more waste than is allowed now.

"He's doing all he can to keep nuclear and radioactive waste out of the state," Huntsman's deputy chief of staff, Michael Mower, said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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