Adrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus
April 1, 2020

Opponents of a proposed nuclear waste storage facility near Carlsbad and Hobbs sought to delay the facility’s federal licensing process, arguing the COVID-19 outbreak would make public hearings on the matter unsafe.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other governors across the country enacted public health orders in recent weeks, calling on residents to stay in their homes amid the pandemic.

A coalition of 50 environmental and Native American groups wrote a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Tuesday urging the NRC – the federal regulatory agency considering the application for license – to extend the public comment period for a facility proposed by Holtec International from 60 to 199 days.

The public comment period, if kept at 60 days, would expire on May 22.

The groups also called on the NRC to host public hearings not only in New Mexico, but also in 18 other cities across the country that could be impacted by the project and the transportation of potentially thousands of metric tons of spent nuclear fuel.

Holtec embarked on the licensing process through the NRC in 2016, and the Commission released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) earlier this month, noting “minimal” environmental impact from the facility itself or the transportation plan.

The company intended to build a consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) in a remote area near the Eddy-Lea county line to hold high-level spent nuclear fuel rods at about 40 feet under the surface until a permanent repository is developed.

The U.S. does not currently have a permanent repository for high-level waste, and a project to build one at Yucca Mountain, Nevada was blocked by state lawmakers.

The NRC recommended, pending a final EIS and safety review, that a license be granted to Holtec to build the facility.

But members of the coalition argued the facility could pose significant risk to the environment and local communities near the site and along the transportation routes, risks that could not be adequately addressed during the pandemic.

Rose Gardner, a resident of Eunice just miles from the propose site of the facility, said holding any hearings amid the outbreak and subsequent health precautions would prevent adequate public participation and should be postponed until the virus is contained.

"NRC has set up some hearings in New Mexico for the public to comment on the Holtec (draft environment impact statement), but unfortunately these dates come at a time when the whole nation, including New Mexico, is under stress and even dangerous conditions which do not allow for the common folk to even go to the grocery store or a doctor," she said.

"NRC must stand down and postpone these hearings, as well as extend the comment period. The most vulnerable in our communities would be put at risk if these hearings were held now."

Coordinator of the New Mexico-based Nuclear Issues Study Group Leona Morgan said the proposal demands full public participation, which became impossible due to government orders to shelter in place to avoid spreading COVID-19.

She said all proceedings should be postponed until larger gatherings were determined to be safe.

"These dangerous proposals for CIS facilities merit full participation by all impacted peoples. It would be unconscionable for the NRC to ramrod this process through during this pandemic," Morgan said.

"Without full public participation, this National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process would lack legitimacy and credibility."

A similar proposal came last week from New Mexico’s congressional delegation.

U.S. Reps. Xochitl Torres Small, Ben Ray Lujan and Deb Haaland (D-NM), along with U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) also called on the NRC to extend the public comment period on Holtec’s license application.

"In response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we urge the Commission to delay any public meetings and to extend the 60-day public comment period regarding the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Holtec’s proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility in southeast New Mexico," the delegation’s letter read.

"The recent guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control is that public gatherings should not be held at this time."

But John Heaton, chair of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a group of local governments from Eddy and Lea counties along with the Cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, said the hearings could be held online and there was no need for a delay.

Heaton argued that an online hearing would allow more public participation by not forcing participants to travel, allowing more voices from a wider range of locations to comment.

“I’ve been led to believe the NRC will be hosting public meetings, but they might be more like webinars,” Heaton said. “That would be more productive, because people would actually have to put forward their arguments without all the interruptions and antics.”

He called attempts to delay Holtec’s licensing political and said a digital hearing would be more convenient for everyone on both sides of the issue.

"Is this one more of the delay tactics, or is it legitimate?" Heaton asked. "The fact that it would be a webinar certainly doesn’t prevent people from making their comments. It’s how business is done today, and it might not get any better.

"Allowing people to comment in a webinar would be more productive than just holding it at one location."

Victor Dricks, public affairs officer at the NRC said the agency was reviewing the proposed extension, and would make its decision publicly.

"We will respond directly to them after we review the letter," he said. "We make all our decisions public."

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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