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Groups File Reply Brief in Case Against EPA’s Yucca Mountain Standards, Seek Stronger Radiation Protection Rule

Sept. 4, 2002

Groups File Reply Brief in Case Against EPA’s Yucca Mountain Standards, Seek Stronger Radiation Protection Rule

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Seven environmental and public interest organizations suing the federal government over its weakening of groundwater standards for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump have asked the court to require the government to strengthen a rule regarding how to measure contamination from the dump. The request, contained in a reply brief filed jointly with the state of Nevada late Tuesday to the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, is part of a legal challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) radiation standards for the proposed storage of nuclear waste at the site.

The proposed high-level nuclear waste dump would sit atop an underground aquifer that area residents rely on for drinking water. National and Nevada-based environmental and public interest organizations contend that the EPA illegally weakened groundwater protection standards at Yucca Mountain to allow the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to proceed with its flawed plan to create a national nuclear waste dump at the site. The case has been consolidated with a similar lawsuit brought by the state of Nevada.

A primary issue is the compliance boundary – the distance from the proposed repository within which no limit will be placed on the amount of radioactive contamination in the groundwater. In its Yucca Mountain rule, the EPA changed that distance from three miles to more than 11 miles, so a cap on the amount of contamination that can seep from the dump would begin only at a line drawn 11 miles from the dump.

In a response filed last month, the EPA said its congressional mandate to establish a site-specific standard for radiation protection at Yucca Mountain gave it the right to weaken the rule as it did. But in the reply brief yesterday, the groups maintained that EPA’s action undermines the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“The EPA’s Yucca Mountain rule assumes the proposed repository will leak and inappropriately allows the DOE to rely on dilution in order to meet national standards. The agency should not be permitted to misuse its discretionary powers to undermine the Safe Drinking Water Act in this way,” said Geoff Fettus, attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, lead petitioners in the case.

“The Yucca Mountain ‘house of cards’ rests on a regulatory structure that has been ridiculously weakened by the Bush administration,” said Lisa Gue, senior energy analyst with Public Citizen, another petitioner. “By taking this issue to court, we are challenging the EPA’s presumption that public health and the environmental regulations can be sacrificed for nuclear industry interests.”

The DOE’s controversial Yucca Mountain site recommendation won congressional approval in July. The agency must now apply for a license to construct and operate a nuclear waste dump from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The licensing process will assess projected compliance with the EPA radiation protection standards.