Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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The Land of Enchantment is a place of majestic sunsets, breathtaking vistas that go on for miles, endless blue skies, bubbling hot springs, year-round sunny days, millions of acres of pristine evergreen forests and clear-flowing rivers. There are New Mexican “guardians” in the community, tribal, legal, and state levels that are fighting daily to protect the land that is deemed sacred to many, and keep the air and water clean (“El agua es vida!”) for those who choose to call it home and for the generations to come.

People from around the nation are moving to New Mexico according to an annual survey by United Van Lines. U-Haul is building a three-story 90,000-square-foot facility in Los Lunas that anticipates the movement of a lot more people into the state. Amazon and Netflix have placed a big footprint here. If Colorado is an example of the effect that legalization of recreational and medicinal cannabis can have on migration, transplants from cities around the U.S. might just clog the roads coming into New Mexico with home seekers as well as tourists. 

Along with an influx of people and additional product support for new arrivals, New Mexico could be expecting a lot of nuclear waste from out of state and state officials aren’t happy about it.

New Mexico officials and members of Congress are looking at stronger oversight of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and have called on federal officials to address alleged ongoing “challenges” with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) environmental cleanup operations.

James Kenney, New Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment, has expressed concerns about operations at WIPP in a letter to the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) and is calling for the federal office to increase its oversight of the nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad. 

The House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce (Committee) requested the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examine management challenges and other issues at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) and have requested GAO examine four areas specific to EM’s mission, including: 1) DOE Program Management, 2) Minimum safety requirements, 3) Soil and groundwater contamination and 4) Coordination with stakeholders.

“The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) strongly supports such a review (requested by the above Committee) and would like to directly share our experiences regarding DOE EM with GAO staff regarding delays in legacy waste clean-up at LANL and the lack of transparency related to the prioritization of shipments to WIPP,” Kenney wrote.

Low-level transuranic (TRU) waste from around the country is disposed of at WIPP via burial in an underground salt deposit about 2,000 feet underground. The TRU elements are all unstable and decay radioactively into other elements around them. DOE and its Office of Environmental Management (EM) owns and operates WIPP but is permitted and regulated by NMED which is headed by Kenney.

Kenney’s letter asked DOE to review nuclear programs in New Mexico, including the prioritization of nuclear waste shipments to WIPP from facilities outside New Mexico. Kinney said first priority should be given to waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico as the DOE intends to increase the production of plutonium pits.

Kenney alleged DOE EM has entered into legally binding settlement agreements with states to prioritize waste shipments to WIPP at the expense of shipments from other states, including New Mexico. “The practice of DOE EM solely managing waste shipments to WIPP from around the U.S. without first discussing with New Mexico stakeholders – including NMED as its regulator – now merits immediate congressional oversight.”

Equally problematic is that DOE EM has sought to expand the scope of waste streams sent to WIPP. “The DOE revised its interpretation of the definition of ‘high level waste’ and developed a ‘dilute and dispose’ program to ship surplus plutonium from South Carolina to WIPP in a potential manipulation of NMED’s waste acceptance criteria as found in its state operating permit,” Kenney wrote.

“DOE failed to make progress in the clean-up of contamination as required by a 2016 Compliance Order on Consent,” Kenney wrote. “This failure continues despite the DOE EM’s congressionally approved budget for clean-up at this site.” NMED holds permitting authority over both LANL and WIPP.

The DOE responded in a statement: “The Department of Energy (DOE) takes seriously its responsibility for safely cleaning up transuranic (TRU) waste generator sites in support of our country’s national defense mission. Shipments are prioritized according to the availability of certified TRU waste that meets the WIPP Waste AcceptanceCriteria (WAC).

“In accordance with the Land Withdrawal Act,” DOE said, “TRU waste cannot be disposed of at WIPP unless it meets strict characterization and certification guidelines established under the WAC with regulatory oversight by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED).” DOE said it will continue its transparency efforts; it also strongly encourages community engagement at all public meetings, including those hosted by DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office.

Kenney’s letter was in response to the Dec.2, 2021 letter from the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce calling for the GAO to hold a program-wide review of “extreme management challenges” at the DOE EM. The DOE EM was added to the GAO’s High Risk List in 2017 and was still on the list at the time of the letter from Kenney. 

“In an effort to assist us with our oversight of EM’s cleanup efforts, the Committee would like GAO to examine the major management challenges at EM that affect its ability to reduce its environmental liabilities and make progress on long standing high-risk areas,” the Committee letter read.