As the public comment period closes Thursday on modifications to a state permit allowing the federal government to store nuclear waste at a southeastern New Mexico repository, critics are decrying the changes as an effort to increase storage capacity at the site and are accusing the state Environment Department of rushing the approval process.

The U.S. Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC, a private contractor that manages the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, submitted a request early this year to change the way radioactive waste at the site is measured.

They want to measure the waste by the volume inside each waste drum rather than by the total number of containers at the site. WIPP can store a maximum of 6.2 million cubic feet of transuranic waste — discarded tools, soil and equipment contaminated by plutonium and other radioactive materials — in its underground salt-bed caverns. But its capacity has been measured so far by the total volume of the waste drums, not the materials held inside them.

The measurement change could lead to a 30 percent increase in the amount of new waste allowed at the site, advocacy groups say.

They expect the state Environment Department to issue a notice in coming days of an October hearing in Carlsbad on the draft waste permit — a time frame they say won’t allow adequate review of the document and a venue they argue will prevent many members of the public with an interest in the issue from attending.

In a letter dated Wednesday, four organizations — Southwest Research and Information Center, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping — asked the Environment Department to set a later date for the hearing and to hold testimony in Santa Fe.

State officials said they could not confirm, however, that a hearing date had been set.

Katy Diffendorfer, a spokeswoman for the Environment Department, also said there was no plan to expedite the approval process for WIPP’s waste permit.

“Everything has been according to regulatory process,” she said.

Spokesmen for the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad field office and Nuclear Waste Partnership did not respond to questions about the permit changes.

The state released a draft permit in August and gave the public 45 days to review the plan.

A petition by 21 environmental groups to extend the public comment period to 90 days was denied by Environment Secretary Butch Tongate.

“This proposal affects all New Mexicans forever,” said Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center. “This should be done right from a health and safety perspective for present and future generations.”

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