Saturday,  May 17, 2003

Study Looks at How Tribes View WIPP

Associated Press

AP Associated Press

CARLSBAD-  A survey of tribal leaders throughout New Mexico shows many doubt they're prepared to deal with an accident involving radioactive shipments to the federal government's nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad.

A Florida consulting firm-  Environment, Safety, and Risk Associates Corp., or ESRA-  surveyed tribal views toward the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.  Company president Sand Straus said that while many tribal leaders have visited WIPP, they have only limited association with it.

"The majority wanted more active participation." said Straus, whose firm does surveys, regulatory analyses, policy reviews and technical assessments for nuclear and hazardous waste, explosives, petroleum and gas, aerospace, mining and transportation.

WIPP stores plutonium-contaminated waste from the defense industry 2,150 feet underground in ancient salt formations east of Carlsbad.'

Greg Sahd, intergovernmental program manager for the Department of Energy's Carlsbad Field Office, said there is a point of contact for 10 tribes across the nation affected by project shipments.  They keep the department up to date on their emergency-readiness programs, he said.

Straus surveyed representatives from all 23 tribes in New Mexico last year about WIPP, interviewing tribal governors or environmental officials.

In New Mexico, more than 56 percent of the tribes surveyed live near a WIPP transportation route, and 69 percent of those most affected felt that they were not adequately prepared for possible accidents.

More than 34 percent of those along the routes did not believe they had essential training and education.  Thirty percent said that the tribe had training but lacked adequate equipment to respond to a radiological accident.

All tribes along shipping routes are considered prepared in case of an emergency, Sahd said.

The DOE has cooperative agreements with tribes to provide technical and financial assistance and training to build emergency response capabilities, but each tribe's situation is unique, he said.

"We work with them to determine what they want to do in terms of building hazmat (hazardous material) response capabilities, what they feel their needs are and what we can do realistically." Sahd said.

Tribes also receive particulars about planned WIPP shipments and knowledge about WIPP to make decisions about their needs, said Chuan-Fu Wu, senior technical adviser at the Carlsbad office.

More than 21 percent of officials from New Mexico tribes affected by transportation routes said that their tribe was not satisfied with those routes.  Seventeen percent said that they had mixed feelings.

More than 56 percent felt more road improvements were needed.

Thirty-nine percent also reported mixed feelings about cooperation between the government and the tribe regarding WIPP.

Sahd said building relationships is vital.

"I feel we have good relationships," he said.  "Part of that badge of honor is maintaining respect for the sovereignty of tribal nations."