By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
bill that would stymie, if not stop, efforts to build a radioactive waste disposal storage site in the southeastern part of the state is getting closer to the legislative finish line.
The House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee voted 6-3 Saturday to approve Senate Bill 53, which would prohibit the storage and disposal of radioactive materials or waste in New Mexico unless the state has agreed to the creation of the disposal facility and unless the federal government has already created a permanent nuclear waste repository.
The Senate has already passed the bill, which now goes to the House Judiciary Committee. If it clears that committee, it will go the floor of the House of Representatives for a final vote.
The effort, sponsored by four Democratic lawmakers, is aimed at slowing the efforts of Holtec International from building a proposed storage site between Hobbs and Carlsbad that would hold highly radioactive uranium from reactor sites around the country.
“I don’t want to see New Mexico become the nation’s dumping ground [for radioactive waste],” Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, one of the bill’s cosponsors, told committee members.
About 25 people testified in support of the bill while about a half-dozen spoke against it, including a lobbyist for Holtec who said the company has already signed memorandums of agreement with community associations and contractors in New Mexico to build a workforce training facility in the state.
It’s unclear at this point what impact the bill, if it becomes law, would have on Holtec’s plans. Last year, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it plans to grant Holtec a license to build and operate the facility.
McQueen and cosponsor Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, told the committee the permit has not yet been issued and there is time to send a statement New Mexico does not want the facility.
Holtec has said the facility would be temporary until a permanent repository could be built, but Rep. Janelle Anyanonu, D-Albuquerque, fears that wouldn’t be the case.
“Once it opens it’s going to be permanent no matter what the permit process,” Anyanou said.
Anyanonu joined both Democrats and Republicans on the committee in expressing concerns that efforts to stop Holtec could lead to a lawsuit. McQueen said he expects Holtec to challenge the bill if it becomes law.
The debate once again shed light on the sometimes controversial crossroads between economic development and community safety when it comes to the issue of radioactive waste sites in New Mexico. The state’s long history with nuclear and radioactive energy also played a role in Saturday’s debate, with some opponents of the Holtec project calling up memories of the first atomic bomb detonation near the Trinity Site in 1945. One report says as many as 1,000 New Mexicans living in communities near the blast may have developed cancer from the radioactive fallout.
One man who spoke in favor of SB 53, Paul Pino of Carrizozo, said his mother and brother died of radiogenic cancer as a result of the atomic test. Noting workers have been contaminated at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, he said, “I hope they don’t die like my mom and brother did.”
Covnersely, some testified they support the Holtec project because of its potential to create jobs and inject new financial life into Southeastern New Mexico.
Jason Shirley from the Carlsbad Department of Development said the business community “at large are all in strong support of the project and against this bill moving forward. We think it will be a very good thing for the community.”
Several lawmakers brought up the recent toxic train wreck near East Palestine, Ohio, as evidence hazardous waste could contaminate communities if a similar incident happened in New Mexico. Holtec has said it will transport all the waste by train.
David Gallegos, who said he is a locomotive engineer, told the committee members that while Holtec could do everything right to protect people and the environment from any nuclear leak, “we cannot depend on the condition of the railroad.” Earlier this month Newsweek reported more than a dozen train derailments to date in 2023.
“Derailments across the country have stopped things … stopped commerce in this country,” Gallegos said.