DOE, New Mexico reach agreement on WIPP permit renewal

June 30, 2023, 7:01AMRadwaste Solutions
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad, N.M. (Photo: DOE)

The Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) have negotiated a settlement on terms to renew the 10-year operating permit for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. The DOE, along with WIPP’s operating contractor, Salado Isolation Mining Contractors, and the NMED negotiated the settlement with New Mexico stakeholders.

The settlement follows a public comment period on the NMED’s renewal of the permit, during which multiple parties expressed opposition to the permit and requested a hearing.

The U.S. disposal facility for defense-generated transuranic waste, WIPP operates under a permit issued by the NMED, which has the authority to regulate hazardous waste at WIPP. WIPP is currently operating on an expired but administratively extended permit.

The terms: In reaching the settlement, the DOE agreed to several permit conditions proposed by the NMED, including prioritizing the disposal of transuranic waste generated within the state. In return, the NMED has agreed not to hold a hearing on the permit. Instead, the department will publish the WIPP permit containing the agreed-upon conditions on August 15. The final renewal permit will be issued in October with an effective date 30 days later.

According to the NMED, in addition to prioritizing the disposal of in-state legacy waste at WIPP, including from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the settlement agreement contains the following conditions:

  • A full and transparent inventory of legacy waste around the United States for ultimate disposal at WIPP through a new report that provides for stakeholder input.
  • Waste shipments to WIPP can be suspended if there is evidence of a threat to human health or the environment.
  • A final facility footprint to accompany any request for new storage panels beyond the two panels authorized in the renewal permit.
  • A permit revocation and reissuance process should Congress increase the storage capacity or expand the types of wastes accepted at WIPP.
  • The requirement that the DOE document progress in siting another geologic repository in a state other than New Mexico through a new annual report.
  • Surveillance of oil and natural gas production and saltwater disposal operations around the perimeter of the WIPP facility.
  • Enhancement of the public participation process by providing quarterly public forums, updating community relations plans, and requiring presubmittal meetings for complex modifications to the renewal permit.
  • Tying WIPP’s closure to both the renewal permit term of 10 years and the capacity limits of the federal Land Withdrawal Act, unless a timely renewal application is received with an accurate inventory of all remaining wastes awaiting cleanup and disposal at WIPP.

Public involvement: The NMED said it will hold a hybrid public meeting on September 22. Participants can join the public meeting online or in-person at two New Mexico locations: Carlsbad or Santa Fe. As agreed during negotiations, the comment period will also remain open until the date of the public meeting. The NMED said that it will respond to all comments received but, considering the settlement agreement, it will not alter the renewal permit.

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