Utah's only waste dump for low-level radioactive waste may have dodged a hefty increase in the fees it pays the state. But the victory may be temporary.
Lawmakers late Tuesday decided not to raise the fees paid by Envirocare, a Tooele County company that accepts radioactive waste from around the nation. Rather, lawmakers will study the current fee structure for a year and come back next year with proposals to raise the current $2.50-per-ton fee."I suspect the study will result in much higher fees than if Envirocare had just accepted the $15 fee we had proposed this year," said Senate Majority Whip Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni, who sponsored legislation that targeted the fees paid by Envirocare.
Senators say the fee may well be raised to about $50 per ton next year, an increase more in line with what othe states charge commercial waste dumps for disposal of radioactive waste.
Envirocare supporters, most of whom are in the House, say the Senate is being vindictive because the House refused to cooperate on the $15 per ton increase proposed this year. There is suspicion the fee increase is little more than retribution against Envirocare for opposing a bill that would have allowed a second company, Laidlaw, to compete with Envirocare for the lucrative radioactive waste market.
By shelving the fee increase this year, lawmakers were sent scrambling Tuesday night to find ways to make up a budget shortfall in next year's budget (lawmakers had already appropriated most of the money from the fee increase before the increase was actually passed).
To balance the budget, they raided $500,000 from a restricted account in the Department of Environmental Quality that they believed had been running a surplus for several years. That angered department director Diane Nielson, who said the restricted fund - consisting of fees paid the state for disposal of radioactive and hazardous wastes - is used to regulate the waste dumps.
The issue of fees paid by radioactive waste and hazardous waste disposal companies will be studied by the powerful Executive Appropriations Committee, which consists mostly of legislative leadership from both houses. This committee rarely studies any issue.
"But this is such a hot issue that it is appropriate that leadership get involved and resolve it," Stephens said. "Most of us have suspicions that the fees are out of balance, and we want to see if that is the case."
Only two other states have commercial dumps for low-level radioactive waste. South Carolina charges about $235 per cubic foot of waste. Washington charges $13.75 per cubic foot of waste. If Utah's per-ton charge is factored the same way, the state receives only about 9 cents per cubic foot.
That has prompted charges by Blackham and others in the Senate that Envirocare is reaping the windfall of a "sweetheart deal" with the state and that Utah is receiving no economic benefit from accepting the nation's radioactive waste.
Blackham maintains that 93 percent of all low-level radioactive waste that is hauled to a commercial disposal site is shipped to Envirocare in Utah.
While revenue is certainly one aspect of the debate over waste fees, there is also growing sentiment in the Legislature that Utah is too attractive as a dump site for the nation's most toxic wastes. They see higher fees as a way to discourage companies from shipping their wastes to Utah.
That is certainly the motivation behind legislation passed Tuesday designed to deter Private Fuel Storage from storing highly radioactive nuclear waste on Goshute Indian lands in Tooele County.
The bill will require PFS to pay a $5 million licensing fee and post a $2 billion cash bond before spent nuclear fuel rods can be stored in the state. It also imposes a $10,000 a day fine for any violation of the law.
The state has also taken control of the only road leading to the proposed dump site, with the intent of imposing stiff fees or tolls on any transport of nuclear waste over the road.
"It is very clear that Utah has become the dumping ground for outside waste," Blackham said. "And if raising the fees will keep some of that waste out, so much the better."