If suspense novelist Robert Ludlum were to describe the waning hours of the 1998 Legislature, he might entitle it "The Laidlaw Conspiracy." Or maybe "The Envirocare Conundrum."

Whatever you title it, the divisive battle over storage of low-level radioactive waste in Utah's west desert flared again late Friday night, culminating in actions that could possibly throw the entire budget out of balance - a problem that must be rectified with only three days left in the session."The budget has to balance, and it is certainly possible we will have to go back into the budget and cut back some of the increases that have already been approved," said Senate Majority Whip Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni. Perhaps as much as $2 million to $3 million worth of cuts.

The latest chapter in the saga featured an attempt to pass a Senate bill that called for an increase in state fees on low-level radioactive waste from the current $2.50 per ton to $15 a ton. That bill would have raised $2.9 million in new revenue - money that is already spent in the 1998-1999 budget that will likely pass on Monday.

But Rep. John Valentine, R-Orem, said the $15 fee would be punitive and unconstitutional since there is only one company, Envirocare, that is currently authorized to accept low-level radioactive waste (earlier in the session, lawmakers rejected an attempt to allow hazardous waste disposal company Laidlaw to compete with Envirocare).

Valentine successfully amended the Senate bill, replacing the $12.50 fee increase with a $1-per-ton tax on all types of hazardous wastes. That tax would be paid not only by Envirocare, but by Laidlaw and all other companies that accept hazardous wastes regulated by the state.

Valentine's version would raise about $1.4 million in new revenue but still well short of what is needed to balance the budget.

Blackham, the sponsor of the $15-per-ton fee, is fuming about the House action, saying he will let the bill die rather than accept Valentine's version. That would throw the budget out of balance by the $2.9 million total - unless, of course, lawmakers miraculously come up with new sources of revenue in the waning hours of the session, something they have done in the past.

Friday night's fight is a continuation of a session-long battle in the Legislature between advocates of Envirocare and Laidlaw. Laidlaw fired the first salvo when a bill was introduced to allow Laidlaw to compete head-to-head with Envirocare for the lucrative low-level radioactive waste market.

After plenty of high-pressure lobbying and arm-twisting, lawmakers ultimately rejected that bill, fearing Utah already has a reputation as a radioactive waste dump and that allowing Laidlaw to enter that market would only accentuate the perception.

That's when Blackham changed the bill to call for a fee increase on radioactive waste. Envirocare supporters cried foul, saying Blackham's bill was retaliation against Envirocare for opposing Laidlaw's entry into the market.

Blackham responded that only two other states, Washington and South Carolina, currently accept low-level radioactive waste. South Carolina charges $235 per cubic foot of waste, and Washington charges $13.75 per cubic foot. When Utah's per-ton charge is factored the same way, the state receives only about 9 cents per cubic foot.

Is it any wonder, he asked, that 93 percent of all low-level radioactive waste that is hauled to a commercial disposal site is shipped to Envirocare in Utah?

"Why should such a sweetheart deal continue?" he asked. "There is no reason why we should accept this waste and receive no benefit from it. We barely get enough as a state to pay for oversight."

His colleagues in the Senate agree, voting 25-1 in favor of raising the fee from $2.50 per ton to $15 per ton. And the $2.9 million in new revenue was promptly snatched up by appropriations chairmen hungry to fund various projects.

His colleagues in the House, however, balked. "I struggle with the fairness of a big fee increase on one company when we have been a little too light on the entire waste industry, the radioactive waste, the hazardous waste, all of it," Valentine said.

The $1-per-ton tax on all hazardous wastes passes constitutional muster, Valentine said, because it applies the fee across the board on all companies engaged in that business, not on a single business.

He also acknowledges that approach throws the budget out of balance with little time remaining to find new revenue sources. But he thinks it can be done by cutting back on or eliminating certain pet projects that were funded Friday night just prior to the environmental waste skirmish.

Ironically, lawmakers could have had even more money to spend had they allowed Laidlaw to enter the low-level radioactive waste market. Blackham said Laidlaw had agreed to a $30-per-ton fee on that waste (compared to the current $2.50 per ton).

"And now Envirocare is saying $15-per-ton fee is going to break them? I find that hard to believe," Blackham said.

"Somehow, I don't think this fight (between Laidlaw and Envirocare) will be over until we adjourn Wednesday night," Valentine said.