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Utah plays political chess over possible site for nuclear waste storage

Utah Gov. Scott Matheson and the federal government have been playing a cautious game of political and legal chess lately.

The cause of the intense political maneuvering is the Department of Energy's (DOE) desire to explore a spot near Canyonlands National Park as a possible underground depository for highly radioactive commercial nuclear waste.

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In the heart of an economically depressed uranium mining area, the project has the blessing of local officials. But it is strenuously opposed by a small group of area citizens, supported by national environmental organizations. And in Salt Lake City, Utah's capital, the issue has become highly controversial.

After commissioning a task force to study the issue, Governor Matheson concluded that a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) is needed to lay out the potential effects of DOE's activities on the adjacent park. Also of concern is possible impact on the Colorado River Basin: The depository, should it be built, would be excavated in an underground salt dome and would entail the mining and disposal of large amounts of salt. This might pose a threat to the river's water quality.

DOE wants to drill an exploratory shaft into the salt formation with a much more limited environmental assessment (EA), rather than taking thd time and expense of preparing an EIS. On July 9, when the local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) director decided to OK the project, Matheson responded by ordering all state agencies to withhold issuance of related permits until a full EIS is conducted.

Now it appears that BLM will try to OK activities which do not require state approval. Meanwhile, five environmental groups have filed an appeal of the EA and hope to get a court stay on DOE activities. The government may have to choose to between suing the state or preparing an expensive, major environmental assessment.

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