By Betsy Blaney
State regulators have given final approval for a Dallas-based company to begin burying low-level radioactive waste at a West Texas site near the New Mexico border, according to a letter posted online Thursday.
In the letter, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told Waste Control Specialists LLC that the dump site conformed to design and construction specifications. The letter was posted on the agency’s website.
The dump site will be the final resting place for low-level radioactive waste from 38 states. A separate site nearby will handle radioactive waste from federal sites around the country.
The approval ends a yearslong effort by the company, whose majority owner is big-time Republican contributor Harold Simmons, to accept the waste at 1,340-acre tract of scrub brush terrain about 360 miles west of Dallas. State lawmakers cleared the way for the site with a law passed during the last legislative session, but the commission still had to sign off on it.
The agency said in its letter that its staff is "closely monitoring" four wells nearby the burial facility because of water that has been found in them.
"It is important to ensure that saturated conditions do not exist within 100 feet of the disposed waste," states the letter, which is signed by Brent Wade, deputy director of waste at the environmental agency.
Company spokesman Chuck McDonald said the state now has a safe solution for disposing of low-level radioactive waste. The company said Thursday evening that it hadn’t yet started burying waste.
"The state of Texas has been diligent and thorough in its oversight of this facility, which is the most robust disposal facility ever constructed in the United States," he said. "In addition, the state has been zealous in its geologic review of the site and with more than 600 geologic core samples and monitoring wells that state oversight is continuing."
Environmental groups have voiced concerns about the geology of the site and its potential to contaminate underground water sources they say are too close.
Earlier this month, state Rep. Lon Burnam, a Democrat from Fort Worth, wrote Attorney General Greg Abbott asking him to waive a confidentiality agreement so that Burnam could publicly release documents detailing possible groundwater contamination at the dump.
Burnam said he obtained the documents under a 2009 open records request. Burnam said he couldn’t release what’s in them but that they contain officials’ concerns about the location of groundwater tables near the dump site; the margin of safety in the event of groundwater contamination; and the possible risk of public exposure to radiation.
Karen Hadden, long an opponent of the site, said she was disappointed the company got the go-ahead to bury the waste.
"There aren’t enough assurances in place to protect against water contamination and over time we’ll probably learn the hard way about this serious problem," she said.
Waste Control, which also stores, processes and manages hazardous wastes at the site, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to open the dump. In 2009, the state issued two licenses to the company to bury low-level radioactive waste, making it the nation’s only dump for all classes — A, B and C — of nuclear debris and the first low-level site to open in 30 years.
One license pertains to a compact between Texas and Vermont that allows for disposal of radioactive materials such as uranium, plutonium and thorium from commercial power plants, academic institutions and medical schools. Last year, though, lawmakers approved allowing low-level radioactive waste from 36 other states to be buried in West Texas.
Petitions to bury waste from the compact states and the three dozen other states must be approved by the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Disposal Compact Commission on a case-by-case basis.
The other license deals with similar materials from sites run by the U.S. Department of Energy, such as Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Hanford Site in Washington state and other federal facilities.
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