Texas reworking plan for radioactive waste shipments

June 29, 2010

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

A plan to potentially let 36 states ship radioactive waste to West Texas — loads that likely would pass through North Texas on major highways and railroads — is being revamped by state officials.

This month, members of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission took down proposed rules that could have allowed dozens of states to send low-level waste to a site in Andrews County. Environmentalists and state lawmakers were among those expressing concerns about leakage, contamination and the safety of communities along shipping routes.

"The rules were withdrawn," said Margaret Henderson, interim executive director of the commission. "There had been a number of public comments. [Commissioners] will be going through them and considering" what to include in a new version of proposed rules, she said.

As commissioners consider new rules, the disposal site — run by Waste Control Specialists and owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, a major Republican donor — faces a violation notice for storing a concrete canister filled with low-level radioactive material for longer than allowed.

The commission is working to determine how the company should deal with the violation. It is also setting new rules on what materials are accepted at the West Texas site and whether other states can apply to send their low-level radioactive waste there.

No date has been set for the commission’s next meeting, and no timetable set for when the reworked rules will be released to the public, Henderson said.

Waste disposal

The Andrews County site is on top of layers of red bed clay in a sparsely populated area north of Odessa. It has had a hazardous-waste disposal permit since 1997.

State environmental officials have already agreed to let the site accept low-level waste from Texas — including from two nuclear plants, Comanche Peak near Glen Rose and the South Texas project in Matagorda County — as well as from Vermont and federal sources.

Now the question is how many other states can apply to send their waste there. The commission has twice delayed voting on a proposal that could open the site to at least 36 other states.

After new rules are written, they must be republished in the Texas Register for at least 30 days, and the public must have at least 30 days to comment before a vote occurs.

State Rep. Lon Burnam, who has expressed concerns about contamination in the North Texas communities the waste would pass through, is skeptical about what happens next.

"I think it’s natural for the activists who had a lot of concerns to feel like we have had a temporary reprieve, but that’s a too-narrow focus," said Burnam, D-Fort Worth. "They got bombarded with critical commentary that they are supposed to process and take into consideration.

"It’s clearly our responsibility to manage our waste and our sister’s waste from Vermont. It is not our responsibility to become the nation’s nuclear waste dump."

Burnam said he thinks politics will delay the new rules for several months.

"I don’t think anyone is going to know what the new rules include until after the [November] election," he said.

Shipments would include items such as beakers, soil, gloves, test tubes and hospital equipment that have come in contact with radioactive material. They would be shipped on trucks or trains, many passing through the Metroplex on a regular basis.

Violation notice

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials have said the site will receive a violation notice for storing the canister of radioactive material for more than a year, as allowed under a license granted to Waste Control Specialists.

State inspectors recently found cracks on an asphalt pad near where the canisters sit. Waste Control Specialists officials say the cracks were repaired last month and were "superficial." But inspectors want the company to turn over information about the status of the pad’s condition and how it was built.

Meanwhile, preparation continues at the site to break ground on the disposal facility. Officials have said it will take nearly a year to prepare the collection area.

Its size will depend on licensing requirements, financing and what rule the commission passes, company spokesman Rickey Dailey said. Company officials have said they didn’t mind the commission’s delay.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

ANNA M. TINSLEY, 817-390-7610

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