A lawsuit filed by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office could block a proposed project to build and operate a facility to store high-level radioactive waste near Carlsbad.
During a Wednesday meeting of the New Mexico Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Interim Committee at New Mexico State University Carlsbad, Chief Counsel at the Attorney General’s Office Matt Baca echoed concerns voiced by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the state’s Democrat congresspeople.
He said the facility could risk public health and the environment along with other industries like fossil fuel development and agriculture.
Baca said the lawsuit filed in March in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico against the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the agency tasked with permitting the project, was intended to stop the project from risking New Mexicans’ well being, he said, as it could become a permanent resting place for the waste.
The Attorney General’s Office, Baca said, believed that by moving forward with licensing Holtec’s facility, the NRC committed a “federal overreach” and could unduly force New Mexico to accept the risk associated with the project.
He said the lawsuit would not force Congress to create a permanent plant for the waste, but could push the federal government to develop one.
“We believe the NRC is obligated under federal law to have a permanent plan,” he said. “We believe there is a federal overreach when they unilaterally decided the cost of this project should be borne by the state and local governments.”
Chair of the Committee New Mexico Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-36) said he agreed New Mexico was being unfairly forced to accept the project, and that it created risk for the state and its residents with little reward.
“New Mexico is kind of being jammed. We’re having this forced down our throat. All of this speaks to a failure of federal law that doesn’t give the state any consent whatsoever,” he said. “The federal government has jumped the gun trying to permit without a permanent plan in place.
“Should New Mexico win, it would certainly be precedent setting and force the federal government to get serious about a permanent plan.”
Company says nuclear waste site would not impact environment
Ed Mayer, program director with Holtec International, the company hoping to build and operate the site, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found it would have no impact on the environment or other industries.
Holtec planned to complete the last set of questions from the Commission, Mayer said, by August and expected to receive a permit in early 2022 and become operational in 2024.
“Our system will have no effect on oil and gas operations and oil and gas operations will have no effect on our system,” Mayer said. “The project will have no negative impact on the local community, environment or the economy.”
Since the project’s inception in 2017 when the company first applied for the permit, Mayer said Holtec briefed 15 of 33 counties along the transportation routes and around the proposed site along with the All Pueblo Council of Governors and other Native American groups.
He said Holtec saw no opposition from local communities.
“We found overwhelming support for the project along the transportation routes and around the proposed facility,” Mayer said.
But Bruce Baizel, legal director at the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) said the state’s executive leadership continued to have concerns for the impacts the project could have on southeast New Mexico.
He said NMED only had authority to regulate the site based on wastewater emitted by the facility and its potential impact on ground and surface water, but that state leadership was concerned the federal government had no concrete regulations for temporary storage of nuclear waste.
“In our country we don’t have a permanent disposal site for this waste. There is a concern that interim could become permanent. It also poses and unacceptable economic risk based on our analysis,” Baizel said.
“In an area where the federal government has not developed any policy, it’s no surprise that there would be contention to interim storage from states that would be subjected to that.”
Ari Biernoff, general counsel with the New Mexico State Land Office said the project could also subject oil and gas operators to limitations on extraction operations in the area.
The proposed location of the Holtec facility sits on about 1,000 acres near the Eddy-Lea county line, amid the Permian Basin oilfield – one of New Mexico’s biggest economic drivers.
Biernoff said that while the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance, a consortium of Eddy and Lea counties and cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs that sited the project a recruited Holtec, does own the surface rights, the mineral estate beneath the surface is managed by the State Land Office and could be prevented from generating revenue if the Holtec site was built.
“That door cannot be closed because Holtec wants it to be closed. A number of our lessees in the area have said they do not have such agreements with Holtec (to not drill in the area),” he said.
“This is revenue that the state and beneficiaries might been missing out on. The land office has not been offered any kind of revenue from this proposal. That means schools will be stiff if this goes forward in its current form. Our hope is that property rights will be respected in New Mexico.”
Economic diversity or environmental racism?
New Mexico Sen. Gay Kernan (R-42) said the project would help diversify New Mexico’s economy away from its reliance on oil and gas, a needed effort, she said, to protect New Mexico the cyclical nature of fossil fuel extraction.
“We have worked for a long time in our communities to diversify our economy away from oil and gas,” Kernan said. “We know we need to do that.”
Kernan said concerns that the interim facility could become permanent should be taken up with Congress as only the federal government can license such a repository for the wate.
“As far as subjecting New Mexico to open ended risk, that’s Congress’ failure,” she said. “That’s not something New Mexico can deal with. Certainly, our Congressional delegation can go to Washington and help address that.”
Leona Morgan, a Dine woman and organizer with the Nuclear Issues Study Group said the open-ended risk of the Holtec project could make southeast New Mexico a “sacrifice zone” and amounted to “nuclear colonialism.”
“We call this environmental racism. The thing that is not very clear to me is how we can uphold environmental justice. It doesn’t make sense that the state of New Mexico is being threatened with this CISF site when we don’t even have the authority to say no to it,” Morgan said.
“This definitely affects us a minority majority state. Eddy Lea Energy Alliance is mostly made up of white folks who have vested interests in these businesses.”
Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway argued the Holtec proposal was important to support the local communities that plan to host the site.
He said the City of Carlsbad supported the project.
“As we work to diversity our economy in southeast New Mexico, it is projects like this are important to the economic future of our community and our state,” Janway said. “This project will bring high-tech, high paying jobs to the area, which is good for all of New Mexico.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.