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Richardson wants review process for uranium operations abandoned

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is calling on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to abandon a process for reviewing proposed uranium mining recovery operations across the West.

Faced with an increase in the number of applications from companies interested in building new uranium facilities or expanding old ones, the agency is preparing a ''generic environmental impact statement'' to look at the effects of the in-situ mining technique.

In a letter sent to NRC Chairman Dale Klein Nov. 30, Richardson said the statement would fall short of addressing and identifying all possible environmental impacts in the western United States.

''The West is a diverse, unique and vast area where one size does not fit all,'' he said. ''As such, the state of New Mexico does not support the scope and approach of the proposed process.''

A spokesman for the NRC, David McIntyre, said the agency has not received Richardson's letter.

McIntyre said the idea behind the generic statement is to make the review process more efficient by analyzing various impacts that might be common in in-situ operations.

''That way, certain impacts would be generic as opposed to specific or unique and those could be handled once instead of being looked at over and over again,'' he said.

But Richardson contends a generic approach is contrary to the NRC's duties and obligations under the National Environmental Protection Act and to the principles of government-to-government consultation with sovereign American Indian tribes, some of which are opposed to uranium mining. It also limits the public's ability to comment on an environmental document that considers only broad-based issues for a regional area, he said.

''The use of a generic, general, programmatic approach instead of ensuring an in-depth evaluation at the site-specific level is disrespectful of the general public's right to have a meaningful voice in decisions of such magnitude and importance,'' Richardson said.

Richardson's letter to the NRC came as the public comment period on the notice of intent to prepare the environmental impact statement ended. It is the governor's second letter to the agency on the issue.

The NRC has received two applications for in-situ operations in Wyoming and is expecting a third before next year, McIntyre said. Applications for operations in New Mexico are expected next year, McIntyre said.

Each application will have its own site-specific environmental assessment, which is less in-depth than an environmental impact statement. If an assessment finds the environment will be significantly impacted by the operation, an environmental impact statement will be done, McIntyre said.

After Richardson sent the first letter in July, McIntyre said the agency accommodated some of the governor's concerns by holding extra public meetings in New Mexico. The agency made environmental assessments available for public comment, which McIntyre said is not typical.