NRC Gathers Public Input
By Richard Trout
Hobbs News-Sun
March 5, 2004

Eunice - An Albuquerque representative and a member of the NAACP in Lea County donšt usually have much in common, but they had everything in common Thursday night.

Like many of the culturally diverse crowd of speakers at the Eunice Community Center, Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, R-Bernalillo County, and Robert Turner of Hobbs both spoke in support of Louisiana Energy Services.

"This can be a vibrant area," Jones said during an environmental "scoping" meeting on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "You have a remarkable opportunity and I think you need to stay open to that opportunity."

"I have two grandsons in Dallas," said Turner on behalf of the NAACP's local chapter. "And if I don't find some work for them here, they're going to stay in Dallas."

The NRC event was designed to take public comment on regional environmental concerns the federal agency will consider in drafting and environmental impact statement for the $1.8 billion uranium enrichment plant Louisiana Energy Services intends to locate about five miles east of Eunice on state Highway 176.

Two reports have been submitted in LES' license application - one addressing safety concerns, the other addressing environmental issues.

Comments on environmental issues also may be submitted to the NRC in a written format. Don Hancock, longtime opponent of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Project at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, told the News-Sun he plans to submit comments by the NRC's March 18 deadline.

Once the NRC develops an environmental impact statement draft, it plans to hold another public meeting in Eunice to receive feedback about the draft. The NRC said it expects to conduct this meeting by late this year.

Following the public input on the draft, the NRC will develop a final draft of its environmental impact statement.

A couple dozen Lea County residents - including people from Jal and Lovington - and a few other New Mexico residents made their voices heard at the Thursday meeting. Andrews city manager Glen Hackler even came forward to say, based on preliminary information, that Andrews believes the plant can become a reality.

Those speaking in favor of the plant included numerous city and county officials, local legislators, business people, and even a few school officials. Although many of the speakers - especially the large pro-LES contingent - didnšt address environmental concerns, several did.

County manager Dennis Holmberg, for example, said that there have been many misleading statements regarding how much waster the LES plant will be using.

The estimated water use by the plant will be 75 acre-feet annually, he said, which is the same amount of water required for a 25 acre farm. The Eunice Golf Course uses 210 acre-feet a year and the Hobbs Country Club uses 280 acre-feet a year, Holmberg also noted.

Johnny Cope, owner of Lasco Construction, Inc., pointed to the economic benefits to be gained by the plant, including 400 construction jobs for up to six years.

"There's so many people in this room who would love to have one of those jobs," Cope said.

Hermilo Ojeda, who spoke on behalf of the Hispanic Awareness Council of Hobbs, delivered his remarks in both English and Spanish. Although Ojeda noted he had initially been concerned because of the word "uranium," he now couldn't think of a single reason to question LES.

"I support the plant 100 percent," he said.

Some of those who spoke in favor of LES also thanked the NRC for conducting its scoping meeting, even if it meant drawing criticism.

"They are giving both sides an opportunity to be heard," said Eunice mayor James Brown.

Not all the attendees were there to commend LES, however.

Lee Cheney, representing the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center in Hobbs, went over a long list of concerns he has with the LES plant, from nuclear proliferation and national security to alleged failings at a similar plant in Almelo, Netherlands, operated by Urenco, one of LES' owners.

"It takes time for people to learn the truth," Cheney said. "It took Tennessee several years to learn the truth, and they had several politicians behind them."

Amy Williams of the Santa Fe-based Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety also brought numerous requests to the NRC's attention. She said the group's accident analysis, for example, should include risks of fire occurring at the enrichment plant and risks to the public living 50 miles within the facility.

The risks of transporting uranium hexafluoride from Illinois to New Mexico and out of New Mexico should also be addressed, Williams noted, as well as the suitability of Lea Regional Medical Center in handling victims of radiation poisoning.

Economic development alternatives to the enrichment plant should [be] included in the environmental impact statement, such as renewable energy research and development, she said.

"As I learned today, considering the strength of the wind in this area, the possibility of wind farms should be investigated," Williams said.

Rose Gardner, of Eunice, one of the few local residents who spoke in opposition to the plant, reviewed her concerns about road conditions, the evaporation pond LES would use for contaminated water, plant emissions and property values.

While the subject of uranium byproduct waste storage was cited by members on both sides of the fence, one U.S. lawmaker noted his commitment to helping solve the currently unresolved matter.

"I understand LES' preferred option is to contract with a private firm, and I remain committed to the facility where necessary, including this private deconversion option," said Diane Ventura from a letter from Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM.

John Goldstein of the New Mexico Environment Department read a letter by cabinet secretary Ron Curry that requested the most thorough environmental review possible. The letter stated that the department's main concerns are environmental justice and waste management.

"NMED will require up to eight permits for this facility, including regulation of air, ground water and surface water discharges as well as hazardous waste," Goldstein said. "Through the process of permit review, the state intends to thoroughly examine each and every aspect of this proposed facility before any approvals are given. We expect that the NRC will take a similarly intense approach in the licensing of this facility.˛

The far, the level of cooperation and information sharing the department has seen from LES has been good, Goldstein added.

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