Trust wastes away in radioactive dump decision

January 7, 2011

Editorial – Dallas Morning News

All Texans should be concerned about the questionable process through which Waste Control Specialists, controlled by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, won approval last week for its West Texas site to store low-level radioactive waste from around the country. Far too much about this process stinks of the influence that one very rich person wields as a million-dollar campaign contributor to Gov. Rick Perry, whose appointees granted the approval.

The need to deal with the nation’s growing stockpile of radioactive waste is a significant issue. The waste must go somewhere, but decisions about the venue must include a transparent process in which financial interests don’t appear to hold ultimate sway. Waste Control is in business to make profits, and its bid to expand interstate disposal at its 1,300-acre Andrews County site will help maximize those profits.

"It’s a state-of-the-art Cadillac of a landfill," Waste Control CEO Bill Lindquist says. "It’s very expensive, and the waste generated in Texas and Vermont is not enough to offset those costs."

Company President Rodney Baltzer says private and public generators of radioactive waste would pay higher prices if other states couldn’t help offset the bill. But when Waste Control got into this business, it knew that Texas and Vermont were the sole members of the Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact authorized to send radioactive waste to Texas. The public impression when the compact became effective in 1993 was that it was a two- or three-state deal.

Last week’s decision allows 34 other states to access the site.

Yes, the requisite public hearings occurred, but Texans’ welfare doesn’t appear to have been the chief factor in the decision to make part of West Texas a multi-state, radioactive dumping ground.

Significant public health issues cannot be ignored. This newspaper questions the wisdom of concentrating so much radioactive waste in a single location, particularly one abutting the important Ogallala Aquifer, a crucial source of water to eight states. Since 2004, the Waste Control site has received six notices for minor violations. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality gives Waste Control a high compliance rating.

Still, the risk factor now rises significantly. Trucks loaded with this waste will be crisscrossing state highways. Over the next 35 years, an estimated 5 million cubic feet of radioactive junk will have been dumped in Texas. That’s the space of 56 Olympic-sized swimming pools, the contents of which can remain toxic for centuries.

Baltzer says the facility is designed to last "thousands of years." He says winning approval was more difficult because of the political ties between Simmons and Perry. Commissioners went overboard to demonstrate their independence. But he acknowledges there’s a public perception problem.

We agree, and it should have been addressed more effectively before the commission’s decision came down.

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