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Higgins opens a new front in the effort to head off shipments of nuclear waste

It’s always good to have a congressman on your side and, in this case, one who is particularly adept at teasing out overlooked angles that result in actions favorable to the public.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, is known for his dogged persistence in the long-overdue extraction of tens of millions of dollars from the New York Power Authority that eventually transformed the waterfront. Higgins used NYPA’s need to renew its federal license for the Niagara Power Project to prod NYPA into keeping some of the huge profits from the power plant in Western New York.

Now he is properly aghast at the prospect of high-level liquid nuclear waste being transported over the Peace Bridge and through Western New York.

Western New Yorkers have every right to be concerned.

The U.S. Department of Energy plans to transport the liquid radioactive waste from a facility in Chalk River, Ont., to the Savannah River processing site in South Carolina. One possible route to South Carolina would send the trucks carrying nuclear waste over the Peace Bridge and south on the Niagara Thruway through downtown Buffalo, then west on the mainline Thruway.

The plan calls for at least 150 truckloads of waste, which includes weapons-grade enriched uranium as well as radioactive isotopes generated at the Chalk River facility from medical uses.

Higgins has written letters to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and met with top energy officials seeking a full environmental review before the shipments start. That effort has been unsuccessful. Now he’s trying a new tactic, centering on two other federal agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

Higgins is putting them on notice about the “hazardous condition” of transporting the material through the region. As reported in The News, the notice forces officials from both departments to “pay attention to the matter.” That could pit the two federal agencies against the so-far intransigent Energy Department.

Higgins serves as a ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism & Intelligence. While his congressional bill requiring a “terror threat assessment” on transporting hazardous materials passed unanimously last October, it languished in the Senate.

Undeterred, he found another path in his effort to protect the region from a potential nuclear catastrophe.

Higgins has not been alone in trying to stop the shipments. Earlier this month, seven environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club’s Niagara Group, filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Energy in hopes of getting a restraining order and injunctions.

The lawsuit claims that the agency circumvented a required public notification and comment process. Moreover, there are other alternatives to trucking the liquid nuclear waste that were not considered. Those include solidifying the waste or “downblending” it in Canada in order to make it less radioactive.

The government’s goal of ensuring this waste is kept safe from anyone who might misuse it is laudable. However, the safety of the millions of people living along the truck route must be of paramount importance, and a full environmental review is needed to help determine that.

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