Utah is about to lose public representation in one of the most important venues we currently have to protect our state's public health and environment: our five citizen environmental boards.
Earlier this year, Amanda Smith, state Department of Environmental Quality director, convened a group of stakeholders in what was termed a "DEQ Boards Improvement Project." I was invited to participate as one who has interacted regularly with the state's Radiation Control Board over the last six years with HEAL Utah, the largest statewide group working to protect Utahns from nuclear threats.
The idea that those who interact most with the boards would be invited to participate in a board-improvement process is a good one. But, unfortunately, the gesture was only cosmetic.
Out of 13 participants, I was the only one who works for an environmental group. And there were no fewer than five industry representatives and attorneys. We met for two days, during which I argued for enhanced public participation, and strenuously objected to what have become the most controversial elements of a bill, SB21, that was written by industry attorneys for Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, after the workshop concluded.
Make no mistake, Dayton and others claim that this bill was the result of a diverse stakeholder process, but the truth is that it was written by the same polluters who stand to gain the most by weakening environmental protections.
The bill neutralizes the environmental boards in several ways. It diminishes the technical expertise of the boards by reducing the number of technical experts. It reduces the number of public participants from three to two, while preserving the three industry representatives. And it shifts the final authority to decide on pollution permits from the citizen boards to the DEQ executive director.
The effort to weaken the boards comes at a critical moment. EnergySolutions has been relentless in its efforts to sidestep Utah's ban on hotter Class B and C nuclear wastes a ban that was widely supported by the public, overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jon Huntsman in 2005 by intentionally diluting the waste before dumping it in Utah.
Nuclear waste blending could more than triple the radioactivity dumped in Utah every year all of it coming from commercial nuclear power plants, none of which are located in Utah.
Utah's Radiation Control Board took this issue on two years ago when EnergySolutions first raised the idea of blending waste. The board passed two position statements one opposing the practice of waste blending when the intent was to sidestep our state ban on hotter nuclear waste; and also supporting the integrity of the waste-classification system.
Despite the board's clear statement of opposition, DEQ regulators recently approved EnergySolutions' blended waste scheme anyway.
If the environmental boards bill passes, then the Radiation Control Board will no longer be in any position to overrule the regulators' misguided decision. Instead, the ultimate decision will be left to the DEQ executive director, who already agrees with the decision to open Utah's doors to blended waste.
What's the point of having an appeal system when the person who hears the appeal has already made up her mind on the issue?
At a time when Utah is increasingly focused on the prospect of losing businesses and jobs because of disturbingly poor air quality, we need to be equally concerned that our state's image will be further degraded by regulators' decision to cement our role as nuclear dumping ground for the country.
It is time we let Gov. Gary Herbert know that we won't stand for environmental laws written by polluters or for everyday Utahns who care deeply about our health and environment finding their voices silenced.
Christopher Thomas is executive director of Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah. He lives in Salt Lake City.