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For the week of April 26 through May 2, 2000

Inevitable incinerator?

The project’s not dead


"We all have friends and kids that live in Idaho Falls. We wouldn’t hurt them."

Bernie Meyer, President of Bechtel BWXT


By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer

Despite widespread belief that environmental activists killed plans for a controversial toxic waste incinerator at the Idaho National Engineering & Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), officials there say the activists probably only delayed the project.

Four INEEL representatives visited the Idaho Mountain Express on Thursday during a tour of Idaho newspapers aimed at increasing communication with the public.

During the meeting, INEEL deputy manager Warren Bergholz said the much-criticized British Nuclear Fuels Limited remains under contract with the Department of Energy to treat and transport to New Mexico 65,000 cubic meters of toxic waste stored at INEEL.

The waste consists of solidified sludge and a large amount of radioactive debris—gloves, booties, painting masks, machine parts—stored above ground in buildings totaling about 3 1/2 football fields in floor area, Bergholz said.

A 1995 agreement between Idaho and the federal government set a timeline for treating and removing the material. Treatment facility construction must begin by 2002, treatment must begin by 2003 and all treated waste must be transported to New Mexico by 2018.

The planned destination in New Mexico is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an abandoned salt mine where the waste will be buried for the indefinite future 2,100 feet below the earth’s surface.

Only about 20 percent of the waste—called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—requires incineration during treatment, Bergholtz said. The other 80 percent, he said, INEEL plans to crush before transportation.

In March, the DOE settled a lawsuit by two nuclear activist groups by agreeing to delay construction of an incinerator while an alternative method of treating the chemical wastes is sought.

Bergholz said the department decided to settle because an appeal by activists of the required hazardous waste and air quality permits could have delayed treatment and transportation of all radioactive waste slated for removal from INEEL, not just the 20 percent that requires incineration.

The agreement allows INEEL’s work on most of the new treatment facilities to continue while a newly created "blue ribbon panel" of experts looks at alternatives to incineration.

Because the Environmental Protection Agency only allows treatment of PCBs by incineration, however, Bergholz said there’s a "strong possibility that we’ve put off the inevitable."

The technologies that offer alternatives to incineration are so new, he said, that they could not be implemented within the state-mandated time frame.

None of the four INEEL representatives could say for sure what those alternative technologies are.

When asked if it’s a foregone conclusion that the blue ribbon panel will ultimately recommend incineration, DOE media relations officer Brad Bugger said, "We’re not going to prejudice the work of the panel. We have a little bit of time."

Bernie Meyer, president of Bechtel BWXT, a contractor that runs INEEL operations, said a major task for INEEL will be to convince the public that smoke from an incinerator is not dangerous. INEEL would have to do that through science, he said.

Alternatively, INEEL would use an emotional argument.

"We all have friends and kids that live in Idaho Falls," Meyers said. "We wouldn’t hurt them."

 

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