Maine-Vermont nuclear waste compact approved by House

This story was published on July 30, 1998 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

WASHINGTON — The House approved Wednesday a deal that would allow Maine and Vermont to dump their low-level nuclear waste from places like the now-closed Maine Yankee in a poor Hispanic town in west Texas.

In a 305-117 vote, the House approved the compact without any of the troublesome amendments that had been previously attached to the tri-state deal, setting up a final showdown in the Senate that will determine its fate.

“All we are asking is to allow us to get [the compact] through and dispose of our waste in a way that makes sense,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, during two-and-a-half hours of debate.

If approved by both the House and Senate, the compact would call for Maine and Vermont to pay $25 million each so Texas can build the waste dump, which has been sited in Sierra Blanca, Texas. Once built, it would house low-level waste from private nuclear power companies from the three states.

The waste would include items such as scrap metal and worker’s gloves from the defunct Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, as well as medical gloves used in radiation treatments at hospitals.

As part of a national plan drafted in the 1980s, the federal government accepted responsibility for high-level nuclear waste from private reactors, which is tentatively planned for burial in Nevada. But Congress encouraged states to build small coalitions, referred to as compacts, to handle low-level waste.

To date, nine compacts have been approved that cover 41 states. Opponents of the Maine-Vermont-Texas compact contend that Sierra Blanca was chosen as the site because it lacks political clout, considering it is 67 percent Mexican-American and its residents have an average income of $8,000.

“In this area, we don’t want it. We don’t need it. And we shouldn’t have it,” said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. Reyes and other opponents say it is not environmentally safe.

But Rep. John Baldacci, D-Maine, said any environmental risks to the region would be taken care of during the construction process, which would include an environmental impact statement and other oversight.

“Those concerns will be addressed in the process,” Baldacci said. “The public will be involved.”

A majority of both Democrats and Republicans supported the compact, as they did last fall when the bill first passed the House. At that time, however, the House approved an amendment by opponents that would have prohibited the compact from taking in any nuclear waste from states not signing on to the original compact.

Also, when the Senate first approved the deal in the spring, Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., attached a measure that allowed Sierra Blanca residents to file federal discrimination suits if they opposed the compact.

Those amendments were opposed by Maine Yankee, which wants the right to sell off any unused space in the dump site, and Gov. Angus King and other state lawmakers, who said they would consider lawsuits a prohibitive delay to the project ever being finished.

If it were passed with amendments, the compact would also have to go back for approval to the three states, each of which has approved the deal. Voters in Maine gave approval by a three-to-one margin in a 1993 referendum.

When the House and Senate hammered out a single bill, supporters of the compact won out, and the amendments were simply tossed aside. Because of that, Wellstone has promised to force a fearsome debate on the issue and the overarching issue of what he calls “environmental racism.”

“I will use every parliamentary tool available to try and block this shameful bill,” Wellstone said.

A vote could come in the Senate on Friday, according to Dave Lackey, spokesman to Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. But the Senate wants to break for its monthlong August recess on Friday, and finding time on the schedule for a contentious bill could be difficult and may push a vote on the compact back until September.

“It’s simply a matter of timing,” Lackey said.