Proposal to truck radioactive waste through Texas to be considered soon

Saturday, May. 29, 2010

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Thirty-six states could start shipping loads of radioactive waste through Texas for more than a decade — likely crisscrossing the Metroplex on major highways and train tracks — if they get approval this summer to send their contaminated materials to a West Texas disposal site.

The proposal to allow the states to send low-level waste to a site in Andrews County has prompted concern from some state lawmakers, who worry about the safety of communities along travel routes — including the Interstate 20 corridor through North Texas — and from environmentalists, who worry about radioactive leakage and contamination at the site.

An eight-member commission is expected to take up the issue in coming weeks, considering rules that would govern what materials are accepted and whether dozens of states should be allowed to send radioactive waste to the Waste Control Specialists’ Texas site owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons.

"This could open [Texas] up to not only become the nation’s but potentially the world’s dump site," said Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter. "We thought the intent … was to take care of our own."

Waste Control Specialists’ officials say the site is safe and opening the landfill to other states will reduce the cost for all. And many West Texans who live near the disposal site say they support the company.

"We are willing to be the solution for the low-level radioactive waste disposal," said Julia Wallace, executive director of the Andrews Chamber of Commerce. "They need somewhere to put it. This is the perfect place for it."

But others aren’t so sure.

Amanda Villalobos is one of the few in Andrews County speaking out against the company, saying that while it is a great community partner and has a strong working relationship with many in the community, she is worried about leakage or other environmental problems.

"They don’t know what they are getting into," Villalobos, 24, said of her neighbors.

West Texas site

The Texas Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission, made up of six Texans and two Vermont residents, will decide whether additional states may apply to send low-level waste to Texas.

State environmental officials already agreed to let Waste Control Specialists accept low-level radioactive waste from Texas — including from Texas’ two nuclear plants, Glen Rose near Fort Worth and the South Texas project in Matagorda County — as well as from Vermont and federal sources.

The site is a sparsely populated area on top of layers of red bed clay about 350 miles west of Fort Worth that has had a hazardous-waste disposal permit since 1997. It’s owned by Simmons, who has given more than $3.5 million to Texas Republican politicians and organizations since 2000.

Shipments would include materials such as beakers, test tubes and hospital equipment, as well as items that have come in contact with radioactive material such as gloves, shoe covers, rags and soil. It would all be sent on trucks or trains, with many of them expected to pass through communities in the Metroplex on a regular basis.

"If an accident occurs, state and local governments will be responsible for the emergency and cleanup services necessary to ensure public health and safety by protecting them from exposure to radioactivity," said a letter written by 15 Democratic state House members, including Lon Burnam and Marc Veasey, both of Fort Worth. "The proposed rule unnecessarily places our constituents and their families at risk."

The commission delayed voting on this proposal this month after logging thousands of concerns and complaints. Members are expected to meet in Andrews County on June 12. They could vote by July, officials said.

More states, more money

Waste Control Specialists is now getting ready to break ground on the disposal facility. It will take workers nearly a year to dig 120 feet into the red clay and install plastic and concrete liners, spokesman Chuck McDonald said.

The company has a 15-year license to collect and dispose of these materials, with options to renew for two more 15-year terms. The facility may accept up to 2.3 million cubic feet of material, McDonald said.

More states shipping their waste means more money for the company, and even for Andrews County, which receives a percentage of the company’s gross receipts from waste disposal each quarter, officials say. Residents in Andrews County also approved a $75 million bond project to help build the site.

The lawmakers’ letter stresses that radioactive waste shipped to West Texas will remain contaminated for tens of thousands of years, and if there’s a leak, "the potential clean-up costs to the state of Texas are exceptionally high."

Last year, Burnam filed a bill that would require the Texas Legislature, not the commission, to sign off on which states can deposit their waste at the site. The bill died.

Vermont consultants urged the commission last month not to approve an expanded contract because there hasn’t been a legal review and Vermont will need all the space available at the dump site for its own nuclear reactor.

Villalobos of Andrews County said there is great support for the company, which has provided scholarships and funded events.

But she’s working for additional protections for the community, such as trying to get the company to fund a full-time Fire Department, pay for a committee to study environmental issues in the area and contribute funds to local hospitals and emergency medical services, "just in case something were to happen."

"It would be great if we could stop it completely," she said. "If not, it would be great to add more protections."

‘The Texas Solution’

McDonald said it is safe to transport items to Andrews County and to store them there.

"The issue is this: The material exists today," McDonald said. "We’re not creating it. It exists … in barrels at hospitals [and] at power plants.

"Instead of having some of it everywhere, it seems we would want to put it in one remote site."

Wallace, of the Andrews Chamber of Commerce, said residents have been supportive of Waste Control Specialists for decades, hoping it could help diversify West Texas’ economy, which has been so deeply rooted in oil.

The chamber recently started a campaign called "The Texas Solution" to support this disposal effort. Members say Andrews County has helped the state and nation through history, such as when the county provided oil needed during World War II.

"I’m not concerned," Wallace said. "I’ve raised my children here, I have my family here. There really is not anything to fear."