A coalition of environmentalists says that the state of Idaho has failed to enforce hazardous waste laws at a government laboratory near Idaho Falls, and that the federal government should take over the regulatory duties.
Idaho had a ten-year trial period to enforce federal hazardous and radioactive waste statutes at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). Now that the trial period is almost up, the federal government is ready to give the state final regulatory authority.
But environmental groups that have petitioned the U.S. government say that would be a mistake.
“Our objective is to make all agencies, be they state, federal, or even local, aware that there are serious transgressions pertaining to enforcement of federal laws,” says Chuck Broscious, executive director of the Environmental Defense Institute.
Broscious’ organization, based in Troy, Idaho, petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Sept. 13. His group was joined by Wyoming-based Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, and Idaho Falls attorney David McCoy.
daho’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), petitioners say, is underfunded, understaffed, and too closely associated with the U.S. Department of Energy to enforce environmental laws properly. Lax enforcement has resulted in the emission of environmentally damaging materials like arsenic, beryllium, mercury and plutonium, the petition alleges.
State regulators reject those charges.
“The bottom line is, we are properly regulating INEEL,” says Kathleen Trevor, the state’s coordinator for INEEL issues. Transferring regulatory authority to the federal government would not solve anything, she says, adding that the EPA was consulted about and concurred with several of the state’s decisions that the petition criticizes.
Caught in between is the laboratory itself.
In its early years, INEEL housed the largest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world. The laboratory began branching out in the 1970s into other areas of research like conservation, renewable energy, and biotechnology.
The laboratory will work with either the state or the federal government, says INEEL spokesman John Walsh.
“I think we’re doing better,” Walsh says. “We recently had what we call a multimedia inspection, both from DEQ, EPA, and the Idaho Department of Water Resources. They looked at a number of our facilities and a number of regulation areas, and we got a number of good comments from them.”
INEEL’s environmental problems are historically rooted, says Trevor, and will not go away anytime soon no matter who is in charge.
“The facility started in the 1950s and operated for decades in the secrecy of the Cold War without having to comply with environmental laws,” she says. “So you have facilities that could never meet today’s environmental standards. You can’t make the hazards that they contain disappear overnight. It’s not like you can wave a wand over them.”