Report says nuke commission needs funding change

Nov. 23, 2010

© 2010 The Associated Press

LUBBOCK, Texas — A state advisory commission is recommending that Texas lawmakers clarify the funding mechanism for a commission that oversees the disposal of low-level radioactive waste disposal in Texas.

The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission and its eight members — two from Vermont and six from Texas — are currently reimbursed for expenses through a contract with Texas’ environmental regulatory agency. The Sunset Advisory Commission said in a report released last week that Texas legislators need to instead establish a dedicated fund so the low-level compact panel has money to operate.

The compact commission is funded by its member states. Commission chairman Michael Ford said Tuesday that Vermont’s statute describes how money will flow to the entity.

"That facet of the (Texas) law is mute on the entire mechanism of funding," Ford said. "Right now the intent of the Legislature is not described on how that mechanism would occur, so we’re at a bit of a puzzle. The whole mechanism needs a lot of work."

In the early 1980s, the federal government started urging states to build low-level nuclear waste landfills, either on their own or in cooperation with other states in compact systems. Vermont, Texas and Maine formed a compact in 1993. Maine dropped out of the deal several years ago.

Earlier this month, the compact commission voted to publish rules that could be used to consider low-level waste from 36 other states that would be buried at a privately run facility in West Texas near the New Mexico border. There will be a 3-day comment period once the rule is published in the Texas Register, which should happen before the end of the month.

In the report released last week, the Sunset Advisory Commission recommended that revenue allocated by a yet-to-be-established waste disposal fee be sent to a newly created General Revenue Dedicated Account. The account would get only the portion of the fee allotted to cover the costs of the compact commission operations from the state’s licensed disposal facility, Waste Control Specialists.

Lawmakers could then appropriate funds from the account to the compact commission through the environmental agency’, the report states.

"Clearly the issue of the mechanism of funding the compact commission has to be clarified by the legislature," said Chuck McDonald, spokesman for Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists. "No one would dispute that."

The advisory commission’s report says the compact commission could have another problem if legislators don’t act in the upcoming session, the report states. If Waste Control Specialists were to give waste disposal fees directly to the commission, the panel potentially making decisions on importations of radioactive materials would hold its own purse strings, the report states.

"This situation puts the Compact Commission in the conflicting position of impacting total disposal volume of commercial low-level radioactive waste that directly affects its revenue source .," the report states.

If left as is, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would still reimburse the compact commission, a move the reports says "inappropriately places" the TCEQ in the position of deciding what expenditures are suitable.

One commissioner isn’t so sure the Legislature, which is facing a budget shortfall that may reach $24 billion, will make the changes the advisory commission suggested.

"I can’t predict what the Legislature is going to do," Bob Wilson said. "I don’t know how this is going to work out. My judgment tells me that we are not going to have sufficient funding in the next two years to do what we need to do."

Design plans for construction of the compact’s disposal site have not yet been approved by environmental regulators.

Once the disposal facility accepts the low-level waste — worker clothing, glass, metal and other materials currently stored at nuclear power plants, hospitals, universities and research labs — Texas owns it and is liable for any possible future contamination after the facility closes.

Environmentalists are largely worried about toxins from the Texas site leaking into groundwater beneath the scrub brush land that’s brought oil prosperity to arid West Texas for nearly a century.

Waste Control Specialists contends it’ll be safe, and many local residents applaud any expansion as a way to bring more jobs and prosperity to the West Texas scrubland.

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