Disposing of Hazardous Waste

The editorial "Time to Pay the Piper," Feb. 18, about nuclear waste and chlorofluorocarbons, includes mention of a United States Department of Energy (DOE) project here in New Mexico, a radioactive waste repository known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). The current status of WIPP represents a triumph of politics over science.

The WIPP site in the southeastern part of our state was selected about 20 years ago. Design work began shortly thereafter, followed by construction which is now complete. This is a facility that has rarely, if ever, been matched for redundant extremes to assure long-term safety. The taxpayers' investment in WIPP is now at least $1 billion - more than $4,000 per cubic yard of storage capacity.

In general, the New Mexico state government has supported DOE's efforts over the years to build and operate WIPP. That should be unsurprising since DOE and its predecessor agencies have been a major and highly creditable part of this state for 50 years.

The judicial obstacle mentioned in your editorial arose over transfer of "ownership" of the site to DOE from another federal agency, the Department of Interior. Ideally, this transfer should be an act of Congress, but congressional action has been blocked for years by one New Mexico representative who doesn't even represent the district where WIPP is located.

That this congressman was out of step with New Mexico governors, its legislature, and the rest of its congressional delegation is apparently irrelevant; he had the cooperation of a House committee chairman, and WIPP land withdrawal legislation simply didn't move.

Of course these and other project opponents claim they are interested only in safety. Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency, and a long list of blue-ribbon scientific review committees urge proceeding with experimental use of the facility.

As project opponents know well, delay may be fatal for WIPP. The mined rooms are in bedded salt, chosen in part for its tendency to creep and seal void areas. If the rooms are not used reasonably soon, salt creep could make them operationally unsafe for workers and the project would have to be abandoned. John Dendahl, Santa Fe, N.M.

Vast numbers of junked cars and refrigerators are leaking chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere. This is a major cause of ozone depletion. An aggressive program to recover these coolants could generate thousands of jobs while preventing incalculable harm to the environment and humans in the future.

Such a program would be an immediate and practical way to mitigate this growing disaster. It could be paid for by a tax on the lucrative production and sales of CFCs until they are eliminated. Tom Falvey, San Francisco

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