House GOP wants to revive Yucca nuke dump

The top House Republican overseeing environmental policy plans to focus this year on funding the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump.

Yucca was one of three priorities identified by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) Wednesday, along with possible changes to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) coal ash disposal rule and the law governing toxic chemicals.

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Shimkus, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s environment subpanel, said a Republican-controlled Senate makes many of his priorities easier than they were before.

The first step with Yucca will be to pass a law to fund the process of developing the Nevada site, Shimkus said.

“We have every expectation that we have a better chance of moving funding through now, since we have a Republican Senate,” Shimkus told reporters Wednesday.

Congress has not included funding for Yucca in recent years. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing a Bush-era application from the Energy Department to build the controversial site, the Obama administration said it does not want to go forward with the process.

But Shimkus said Yucca has strong bipartisan support and the Obama administration is legally obligated to build it.

“Our position is, they don’t have a choice to not defend the application,” he said.

He did not identify a specific funding level, but said that getting any funding into the process would be better than the current level of zero.

On coal ash, lawmakers are still communicating with utility companies, coal ash recyclers and others to determine whether the EPA’s December rule, setting the first national standards for ash disposal, is acceptable to them.

Shimkus is planning a hearing next week to help figure out whether Republicans want to draft a bill to change the rule.

“The question is, do we need to move forward? Are there things we need to do?” he asked. “We’re getting input from stakeholders that there might need to be a few tweaks.”

Specifically, Shimkus is worried that the EPA left open the door to designating coal ash in the future as a hazardous waste, which would bring a whole new set of disposal rules, something the industry doesn’t want.

“So there’s a question of certainty on that part of the rule,” he said. “How do you make business decisions, how do you raise capital, when you have an uncertain environment? They have clarified it for now, but the risk is still there.”

Shimkus declined to get into specifics about his plans to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act.

But he said he is likely to take cues from the committee’s work last year on chemicals. Democrats participated in the process, but Senate Democrats ended up objecting to the final product.

“We did a lot of work last Congress. A lot of big, bipartisan negotiations and discussions,” he said.

“I think we’ll try to run that hoop again, maybe not as extensive, but maybe try to get some buy-in from the members who were actively involved.”

While Shimkus was optimistic about the new Senate, he said he leaves relationships with that chamber up to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the full committee’s chairman.

But he also said the possibility of a veto from President Obama does not sway him.

“We’re unconcerned with vetoes,” he said. “We can’t control them. The only way that we would be concerned with vetoes is if the president would engage legislatively.”