NM grants new permit for nuclear waste repository

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- The New Mexico Environment Department has renewed the hazardous waste permit for the federal government's nuclear waste repository east of Carlsbad.

The new permit for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant goes into effect Dec. 31.

It is the first time the plant had received a permit renewal. The current permit was issued in 1999, the year it opened.

The U.S. Department of Energy repository was excavated in salt beds 2,150 feet below the surface of the southeastern New Mexico desert. It buries waste such as gloves, tools, dried sludge and other debris contaminated, largely by plutonium, during weapons work.

The material remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

The Environment Department's permit lets the plant dispose of mixed waste -- items contaminated by chemicals as well as radioactivity. Such hazardous materials are regulated by the state, while the radioactive material is regulated by the federal government.

The new permit makes a number of changes to the original one, including allowing higher levels of volatile organic compounds, said James Bearzi, chief of the Environment Department's Hazardous Waste Bureau. The new permit more than doubles the previous levels allowed, he said.

It also expands public involvement and makes it easier for members of the public to stay informed about things at the plant as they happen, Bearzi said.

Ed Ziemianski, acting manager of the DOE's Carlsbad Field Office, said the state permit is essential to the plant's operation.

"This permit renewal enables us to continue to safely deliver waste from DOE facilities to the plant's underground repository for permanent disposal," he said Wednesday.

The plant is expected to receive about 28,000 shipments from DOE facilities around the nation through the year 2030.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recertified the plant on Nov. 18, which verified that the plant remains in compliance with federal regulations.