Judge halts radioactive dump plan for now

Dec. 30, 2010

ASSOCIATED PRESS/Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN — A Texas judge ordered a temporary halt Thursday to a proposal that could allow three dozen states to dump their radioactive waste in far West Texas, a ruling that sided with environmentalists and caught the state attorney general’s office off guard.

State District Judge Jon Wisser issued a temporary restraining order against the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission, which is scheduled to vote Jan. 4 on rules that could expand how much waste could be processed at a dump in remote Andrews County.

The injunction was issued in the judge’s courtroom late Thursday morning, shortly after environmentalists filed the request, with nobody there representing the commission. A few minutes later, shocked lawyers from the Texas Attorney General’s Office – which hadn’t been officially notified of the pending court action – showed up and persuaded the judge to order a new hearing on the injunction.

The hearing is set for Monday in Austin, one day before the commission’s scheduled vote.

Environmentalists sought the ruling after accusing regulators and a politically connected company of rushing the waste expansion proposal past Texas residents who were too focused on the holidays to notice.

Waste Control Specialists, whose majority owner is Dallas billionaire and prolific political donor Harold Simmons, wants state regulators to approve its proposal to allow low-level radioactive waste at its West Texas dump site from three dozen states. As it stands, the compact site can only get waste from Texas, Vermont and the federal government.

The timing of the commission’s vote next week has its own political intrigue.

The commission has six members from Texas and two from Vermont. The incoming governor of Vermont, Democrat Peter Shumlin, has publicly criticized the proposal, but he doesn’t take office until Jan. 6. By then, the two commissioners appointed by his predecessor could vote in favor of the plan, given their past support of the rule.

In their court filings Thursday, environmentalists said many Texans wanting to comment on the proposal were blocked from doing so because the commission used a defective e-mail address and then ended its 30-day public comment period on the day after Christmas, when federal post offices were closed.

Charles Herring, an attorney for environmental group Public Citizen, said the commission violated several procedures and was trying to quickly adopt new rules in order to reward billionaire Simmons.

"They shouldn’t be able to violate seven laws just to pay a political favor to somebody, with the result being we’re going to degrade the environment and threaten the folks with radioactive waste," Herring said.

Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for Waste Control Specialist, described Thursday’s court action as a legal stunt designed to delay the vote past the swearing-in of the Vermont governor.

"It is disappointing that after two years of public input and hours of public testimony, we’ve come to this last-ditch attempt to derail what has been a very thorough and open process," McDonald said. "I think they’re merely trying to buy a couple days’ delay."

The environmentalists sued the commission Thursday to halt the vote, and acknowledged that they didn’t tell the attorney general’s office. They said the bi-state commission is not set up as a traditional Texas agency and does not get legal representation from the state.

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