Radwaste site’s water risks ruled secret

April 18, 2012

The Que Bue blog
San Antonio Current

State Representative Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, would love to spill the contents of a top-secret pile of documents he got from the state. But he can’t. Stemming from a state open records request he filed in 2009, Burnam now says he has documents from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that prove serious public health and safety risks associated with the West Texas Waste Control Specialists radioactive waste dump built and owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons. After a two-year court battle, Burnam says a court ordered the documents released to his office as a "legislative privilege," but that he was forced to sign a confidentiality agreement with the TCEQ not to reveal the contents. Burnam’s short on details, saying only that the documents show the presence of groundwater inside the facility’s 100-foot buffer zone, and that they discuss the margin of safety in the event of groundwater contamination along with discussions of possible risk to the public of radiation exposure.

"Until we know the source of this water, the likelihood of groundwater contamination, and the risk to the public, it’s simply irresponsible to open this site," Burnam said in a statement.

WCS is waiting for the final word from TCEQ to open up its Andrews County radwaste site to much of the nation, a decision Burnam says could come as soon as this week. Burnam insists the public should know what he knows before WCS gets the green light. On Monday Burnam sent off two letters, one to AG Greg Abbott asking he clarify whether the "top secret" information is really confidential under state law, and another to TCEQ Executive Director Mark Vickery, urging him not to give the dump final approval. "I don’t think the statutory criteria for keeping these documents secret have been met, especially when you consider the very serious public health and safety implications involved," Burnam said.

WCS has been clear on its intent to make its Andrews County facility a burial site for radioactive waste from across the county. As detailed in a Bloomberg piece early this month, Simmons has even been greasing the political gears hoping to score a rule change from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to expand the definition of ""low-level radioactive waste" so his site can bury waste like depleted uranium.

Critics of WCS’ plan have insisted the dump sits dangerously close to the Ogallala Aquifer (some contend on top of the aquifer, though the company disputes it), the nation’s largest aquifer stretching all the way to South Dakota. If this is starting to ring a bell, it should. Former TCEQ geologists and engineers told their bosses in 2007 that WCS’ radwaste license shouldn’t be approved partly because of concerns over contaminating the nearby water table. They resigned in protest when the TCEQ forged ahead, ignoring their concerns — then the former TCEQ director who issued WCS’ licenses, Glenn Shankle, left to lobby for the company. "Staff professionals at TCEQ have resigned over the licensing of this site — experts quit their jobs because they do not agree that the site is safe enough for radioactive waste," said Karen Hadden with the SEED Coalition in a statement Monday.

Burnam also released a non-confidential report from WCS to TCEQ showing that between November 2011 and March 2012 the company pumped more than 23,000 gallons from a monitor well inside the so-called "buffer zone."

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