Radioactive waste may soon travel on DFW highways

Apr. 15, 2012

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Huge numbers of trucks carrying low-level radioactive waste from dozens of states will soon travel highways nationwide — including those in the Metroplex — on their way to a remote disposal site in West Texas.

Shipments from up to 36 states will head to a dump in Andrews County near the New Mexico border, owned by Dallas billionaire and generous Republican political donor Harold Simmons, despite concerns from environmentalists and others worried about potential accidents or contamination once the loads are left at the Waste Control Specialists facility.

"Texas is going to become a nuclear waste dump if everything happens under their plans," said state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, an opponent of the facility. "We will be the major route for nuclear waste.

"I am absolutely concerned about the transportation of the materials, about the high volume of nuclear waste traveling on our interstates through areas such as Fort Worth and Dallas," he said. "I think it’s a really bad idea to have that much nuclear waste rolling down our interstates unguarded."

The first shipments, possibly this month, will likely come from the state’s two nuclear plants, Comanche Peak near Glen Rose and the South Texas project in Matagorda County. Truckloads of contaminated waste from other states, which require a formal application process and approval, could start by summer.

Officials aren’t publicly outlining the shipment routes, although many say loads are likely to cross major highways in North Texas as dangerous materials already do.

In the past eight years, 72 incidents nationwide involving trucks carrying radioactive material on highways have caused $2.4 million in damage and one death, the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration says.

Workers at the Andrews County site say various shipments, including contaminated sludge from New York’s Hudson River in 2009, have arrived without incident.

"We have been successfully and without any incidents at all transporting this material for quite some time," said Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists. "Transportation of low-level radioactive waste is highly, highly regulated, requiring specified types of containers and vehicles.

"It’s going to be addressed and is addressed by appropriate government entities."

A ‘win’ for Texas?

In the early 1980s, the federal government encouraged states to build low-level nuclear waste landfills either by forming compacts with other states or on their own. Texas and Vermont teamed up to create a compact to dispose of waste from the two states and federal sources. Last year, state lawmakers approved the Andrews County site; the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission recently agreed to let as many as 36 states ship waste there.

The Texas Compact Disposal Facility, the nation’s only commercial facility licensed to dispose of certain types of low-level waste, formally opened last year in a sparsely populated area about 350 miles west of Fort Worth. Waste Control Specialists spent millions to build and open it.

Shipments of Class A, B and C waste sent there will include medical materials and hospital equipment such as beakers, test tubes and X-ray machines, as well as items that have come in contact with radioactive material such as gloves, shoe covers, trash, rags and dirt.

Those items will be placed in steel and concrete containers that will then be placed in other steel and concrete containers built into red bed clay. When the main container is filled, the entire area will be sealed, McDonald said.

Texas shipments will be first.

"We’re going to take radioactive materials out of Texas urban centers and dispose of them in an arid, isolated location that we believe is a good location," McDonald said. "We believe it’s a win for the state of Texas."

Nebraska may be among the first of the other states. Officials with a public power district are close to a $3.1 million agreement to dispose of long-stored low-level waste such as radioactive filters.

The company has a 15-year license to collect and dispose of the material, with options to renew for two 10-year terms. State lawmakers have banned materials from foreign countries at the site.

Environmental concerns

Environmentalists have complained about the site for years, worried that the waste might contaminate groundwater.

Opponents say they believe that Simmons’ political clout prompted the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to give favorable treatment to the project, despite environmental questions, and later led the 2011 Legislature to permit limited amounts of waste from other states that were not part of the original Texas-Vermont compact.

Three staff members of the environmental agency quit in protest in 2007, saying that higher-ups ignored their concerns about possible groundwater contamination.

"We continue to have concerns about the site itself and whether or not there is enough protection … and whether there will be contamination of the water," said Karen Hadden, executive director of the statewide SEED Coalition environmental group. "Once radioactivity gets into groundwater, it’s a difficult thing to clean up and it can get into the millions and billions of dollars."

Waste Control officials have said they have responded to concerns through the licensing process and have conducted tests that show the site to be safe.

"We have taken core samples around the site so we know exactly what the geology looks like," McDonald said. "It’s not going to impact any drinking water supply in any way.

"It’s an ideal site."

SEED has asked state officials for an independent audit system to do spot-checks and random audits to make sure that safety procedures are followed, shipping procedures are accurate, and limits on volume and types of radioactive waste are met.

"We want to make sure shipments are right when they arrive — that they are the correct material, packaged properly, don’t have water in the disposal pit," Hadden said. "We want to make sure it’s put in the right place and marked properly."

Accidents happen

In February, an Arlington train derailment blocked traffic for hours. Only corn syrup was spilled, but it could have been much worse: More than a dozen train cars that did not derail were filled with dangerous chemicals including flammable crude oil, sodium hydroxide, liquid chlorine and sulfuric acid, reports said.

While the Arlington accident involved a train, and low-level radioactive shipments will be moved by truck, local emergency management officials say they are prepared for an emergency, partly because of training received for special events such as the Super Bowl.

"I-20 has been a designated radioactive shipment corridor for some time," Arlington Assistant Fire Chief Jim Self said. "We’ve had training over the years … and this is not a foreign idea to us.

"The Arlington Fire Department is prepared for any kind of radioactive-related emergency," Self said.

Local officials say they don’t know when these shipments will pass through the Metroplex.

"We will make sure our first responders are aware of the different types of materials out there," said Juan Ortiz, Fort Worth’s emergency management coordinator. "The response, planning and training is not completely new to us.

"We have a lot of the capabilities in place," he said. "But this is a challenge that most communities will have to figure out how to overcome."

In case of an accident, standard procedure is to contain spilled materials, make sure they don’t get into waterways and prevent people from coming into contact with them, officials have said.

But many communities may not be as prepared, especially small Texas towns that might lack emergency management teams or personnel trained to respond to hazardous-material emergencies, Hadden said.

"Shipments can go through any major city, any major highway, and you have no way of knowing when you see an accident if there are radioactive materials involved," Hadden said. "There has really been no analysis of the best transportation routes or of emergency preparedness."

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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