Republican legislators are calling for an end to the state's Low-Level Waste Siting Commission, a move that could reopen West Valley to the state's radioactive waste.
Without the siting commission, the Legislature would be forced to come up with a new system for finding a long-term waste disposal site, according to administration officials and many state legislators.
That would force Western New York legislators to return to an old fight: exempting West Valley in the selection of a disposal site.
When the Legislature created the siting commission in 1986, it exempted West Valley, the Adirondacks and other areas from consideration.
Since then, there has been pressure from the state's utilities and other waste generators to drop the West Valley exemption.
If a new siting process is enacted by the Legislature, West Valley's exemption would have to be re-enacted.
Western New York legislators, particularly Sen. Jess Present, R-Bemus Point, and Assemblyman Paul Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, said they would fight hard to renew West Valley's exemption. But all legislators agree that would be a difficult fight.
The exemption won approval nine years ago, partly because it helped the state win federal funds to clean radioactive contamination at a former nuclear fuel reprocessing facility at West Valley. With the cleanup under way, that rationale no longer exists, officials say.
Senate Republicans and Gov. Pataki have proposed eliminating the siting commission's funding, but it's not yet known whether the Assembly will go along with the plan, which is part of the ongoing state budget deliberations.
"The only way the commission will survive is if the Assembly insists that it be kept going," said Sen. James Seward, R-Oneonta. "I can't think of any justification for keeping a state agency, which over eight years, has spent over $50 million to accomplish nothing."
Tokasz said eliminating the commission would create "far more problems than it will ever hope to solve."
"What does the governor propose to do with this waste?" Tokasz asked. "Does he have some solution to this problem that nobody else knows about? If so, I'd sure like to hear it."
Pataki and Seward say the state should first determine if another state will take New York's waste. While many officials have discounted that possibility, the South Carolina State Legislature is considering whether to reopen a disposal facility that once took New York's waste. No decision has been made yet, South Carolina officials said.
Seward said the state should put together a package of financial incentives for any community that voluntarily accepts the disposal facility. The Town of Ashford, where West Valley is located, remains the only volunteer, although Supervisor William King said it wants to renegotiate the multimillion dollar compensation package negotiated with waste generators.
Under Seward's plan, the state Department of Environmental Conservation would decide who would get the disposal site.
Anne Rabe, a lobbyist for Concerned Citizens for the Environment, said the siting commission probably won't be saved in the Assembly, meaning the Legislature will finally have to deal with the disposal issue, since federal law requires all states to dispose of their own waste or form a compact with another state.
"The Legislature's going to have to take the bull by the horns and make a decision," she said.
Alex Cukan of the Sierra Club urged the Western New York delegation "to band together because of forces in other parts of the state that are pushing toward West Valley."
"They are our only defense," he added, referring to the lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Present and others are backing legislation that would store waste generated by utilities at the site of their reactors, while waste generated by hospitals would be stored at one of the two nuclear power plants operated by the New York Power Authority.
That bill would not require an exemption for West Valley, according to Ms. Rabe.
Ray Vaughn of the West Valley Coalition said court decisions allow the state to avoid taking any action on the disposal issue. He added that the state's waste generators have been able to cope despite the lack of a disposal facility in New York, with nuclear power plants storing their waste on site and some hospitals cutting research projects that produce waste.
"The sky did not fall when (the South Carolina disposal site) closed," Vaughn said.