Senate Majority Whip Leonard Blackham said his SB144 wouldn't bring more low-level radioactive waste to Utah, it would just bring more competition into the Utah marketplace.
And that's healthy, Blackham argued Tuesday.But what isn't healthy, a majority of senators decided, is for state lawmakers to circumvent the normal approvals process and give up-front permission for Laidlaw Environmental Services to become the second hazardous waste company in Utah to accept radioactive dirt.
After more than an hour of debate that prolonged Tuesday's afternoon session, the Senate voted 18-11 to kill the measure and force Laidlaw to go through the standard permitting process.
That means the company likely will be back next year to ask lawmakers and Gov. Mike Leavitt to approve its plan to convert a 10-acre storage cell so it can handle low-level radioactive waste - but only after it has received approval from the state Department of Environmental Quality, not before.
The Senate debate was as spirited as any this session.
Minority Whip George Mantes, a Tooele County Democrat, offered an emotional discourse on why legislators shouldn't change public policy for the benefit of a company he said made a bad business decision.
"The present system as it exists has worked well and could continue to work well if we just leave it alone," Mantes said. "If there's a real need for this bill other than to increase the revenue of Laidlaw, let them come to us under current statutes . . . and we can decide if there's a real need."
The lobbying of lawmakers by both Laidlaw and its competitor, Envirocare of Utah, has been intense.
Mantes alleged Tuesday that Laidlaw may have offered "certain key people" in the Legislature a financial stake in the new operation if SB144 were to pass. He formalized those accusations in a letter to Attorney General Jan Graham, asking for an official investigation.
"Why are we so committed to making our great state the dumping ground of this country?" Mantes asked.
"Why are we even discussing this issue? Well, just to help Laidlaw. That's the bottom line."
Blackham, R-Moroni, touted the bill as a way to break up a monopoly now enjoyed by Envirocare, another Tooele County hazardous waste facility that currently accepts the majority of America's low-level radioactive waste.
"In all practical sense, if you vote for this bill, you are giving approval for Laidlaw to compete on low-level radioactive waste with Envirocare," Blackham said. "They still have to meet all requirements from DEQ. They still have to get local approval.
"Probably not one more pound of low-level radioactive waste will come into the state of Utah than does right now."
Mantes argued the bill would result in a bidding war that could increase the amount of waste brought here.
Sen. Lorin Jones, R-Veyo, said radioactive waste isn't something he thinks Utahns want on a list of imports.
"It's funny that this gets presented as a competition bill, frankly," said Jones, who voted against the measure. "This is an area where we don't want competition. This is an area where we want some limits and responsibility."
Sen. Craig Taylor, R-Kaysville, said he didn't see the bill as any advantage to Utahns and voted against it.