Hotter Radioactive Waste Could Be Coming To Texas

MAY 1, 2013

StateImpact Texas

Update, May 1, 2013: The Senate has passed SB 791. The bill could allow states around the U.S. to import more of the "hotter" radioactive waste into a West Texas disposal facility and limit contested case hearings. Several amendments to the bill were passed, including ones that would make generators of radioactive waste responsible for the cost of transportation accident cleanup, allow for random audits of shipments of radioactive waste into the site and affect the Compact Commission Executive Director’s ability to modify disposal licenses. The bill now moves to the House Environmental Regulation Committee.

Original story, March 26, 2013: A controversial new bill could encourage states from around the country to send waste with higher levels of radiation to Texas. The legislation prompted some heated debate at a Senate Natural Resources Committee meeting today at the Capitol.

The bill, SB 791, by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would allow "hotter" radioactive waste into West Texas’ only radioactive waste disposal site, which started running last year after many years of controversy and debate, which continued in part today.

The disposal site is owned by Waste Control Specialists, a company owned by Dallas billionaire and top Republican donor Harold Simmons.

Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, a member of the committee, is concerned that the overarching goals and purpose of the Waste Control Facility are diverging from their original purpose. Initially, the site was meant to be a safe receptacle for all of Texas’, and other compact members’, dangerous radioactive waste, he said.

Now, "we are going to encourage more importation of higher radioactive waste," Duncan said.

The majority of storage space at the 1,300 acre site is designated for members of the Texas Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission, which only includes Texas and Vermont. The crater-like disposal site is the only one in the nation built to store all three classes of low level waste — A, B and C. Class A waste is the least radioactive and most voluminous, Class C is the most radioactive but has lower volumes.

Texas already imports waste from states around the country that are not part of the compact. Fees for out-of-compact waste are higher than waste from firms within the compact. B and C Class waste brought into the site would have to be compacted by a factor of three, according to the bill.

Companies in Texas will be encouraged to export their Class A waste, with its lower levels of radiation, to cheaper sites outside Texas, such as the disposal site in Clive, Utah.

The bill would also limit the amount of people entitled to a contested case hearing – a way regular citizens can air their grievances to the state about the disposal site – to only people living nearby the far West Texas facility.

State Sen. Duncan was troubled with those portions of the bill. At the meeting, he said that while Seliger had done a fine job authoring legislation related to the waste facility in the past, "this seems to be expanding on that in a direction that I don’t think we ever intended to go when we started on this journey," Duncan said.

The bill would entitle only those living in Andrews County or an adjacent Texas county to a contested case hearing. New Mexicans would be restricted from the hearings, even though thousands of New Mexicans live within 20 miles of the facility. They would have to use federal courts as recourse, Seliger said.

That was the rub for Duncan, who said Texas shouldn’t encourage the involvement of the federal government in disposal site issues.

"They are still Americans, whether they be on the West side, the North side or the East side of the plant. They ought to be allowed the opportunity to be heard on that, shouldn’t they?"

Rod Baltzer, President of Waste Control Specialists, testified in favor of the bill and said it would benefit Andrews County and Texas.

The site has so far generated $7.5 million for the state’s general revenue fund, and about $1.5 million for Andrews County. Another $3.2 million is projected to go into Andrews County’s coffers in the next 12 months. The site also provides about 170 non-oil-and-gas jobs for Andrews County, Baltzer said.

All Andrews County revenues for the 2012-13 budget amount to about $24.7 million, according to an Austin American-Statesman report.

The new legislation wouldn’t hurt Waste Control’s bottom line, either.

"Is there an economic motivation? Absolutely, there is," State Sen. Seliger said. "There’s more money in B and C waste. There’s also no other place for it to go."

The committee did not vote on the bill today, leaving it pending in committee.

David Barer is a reporting intern with StateImpact Texas.

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