Heading to Texas, Hudson's Toxic Mud Stirs Town

By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr. New York Times
May 30, 2009

EUNICE, N.M. - There are not many towns in America that would welcome the 2.5 million cubic yards of toxic sludge being dredged from the bottom of the Hudson River in New York, but to hear Mayor Matt White tell it, Eunice is one of them.

Storing waste nobody else wants means more jobs, Mr. White said, and the oil workers here are used to living with hazards. After all, there are several oil wells in the town itself. One of them is a block from City Hall.

"We have deadly gases in the oil fields," he said. "It's more deadly than any of the stuff they are going to put in the ground out here."

From the edge of town, one can see huge berms at the landfill where General Electric plans to bury the dried sludge that is tainted with 1.3 million pounds of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. They flowed into the upper Hudson from two G. E. factories for three decades before they were banned, in 1977. In high doses, the chemicals have been shown to cause cancer in animals and are considered a probable carcinogen in people.

The landfill lies five miles away in Texas, right across the state line, and belongs to Harold C. Simmons, a Dallas billionaire who was a large campaign contributor to former President George W. Bush and Gov. Rick Perry. (He also helped finance the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race and the advertisements linking President Obama to William Ayers in 2008.)

Not only has Mr. Simmons's company, Waste Control Specialists, landed a lucrative contract to take the Hudson River sludge to Texas, but this spring it won a permit from the state to store low-level radioactive waste as well.

Some environmentalists warn that the landfill is too near the giant Ogallala aquifer to store such hazardous materials, an assertion the company says is a lie. The federal Environmental Protection Agency's office in Dallas and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have sided with the company in the debate over the aquifer. But some confusion remains, and three state environmental officials have resigned in protest over granting the company permits for the radioactive waste.

A little closer to Eunice, just inside New Mexico, an international consortium is building a uranium enrichment plant, with the blessing of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Not everyone in Eunice is overjoyed by these developments.

Rose Gardner, 50, a florist, has been fighting the landfill and the uranium enrichment plant for years, but she says it has been hard to get others to rally to the cause. Local business leaders and politicians on both sides of the state line fully support the projects, and some residents are afraid to speak out against the authorities, Ms. Gardner said.

"I'm all for economic development, but why do we have to sacrifice our health and the environment?" she said.

Nellie Franco, a school librarian, said she and her husband, George, were considering moving after having spent their entire lives here. She can see the landfill from her front yard, past a corral with horses in it. "I don't want my grandchildren to grow up here," she said as she watered her front lawn. "They say, 'It's safe, it's safe.' What if they have a spill?"

Some residents complained that there had been no public hearings on the plan to haul the toxic sludge to the site. Eddie Joe Harper cursed when he was told the sludge would travel on railroad tracks running next to his property. "I hadn't heard that," he said. "They keep it all hush-hush."

But like many residents here, Mr. Harper, who works for a company that does environmental cleanups in oil fields, worries more about leaks from the uranium plant than from the landfill. "It don't take but one leak and, boom, it would be over with," he said.

Still, many people in Eunice say the landfill and the enrichment plant were bringing new jobs into a local economy that used to be buffeted by the rise and fall of oil prices. Some even said they considered it a patriotic duty to accept the Hudson River waste, to help clean up America.

"We are not uncomfortable with it at all," said Lynn White, a barber who publishes the local newspaper, Eunice News. "There is just not a whole lot to fear about the deal."

Even without the landfill and the uranium plant, Eunice is hardly a garden spot.

For miles around the town, pump jacks bob their mechanical heads like great birds pecking the earth. Power lines run like stitches over the high plains scrubland to power the pumps. The air is sour from the gases emitted by the wells and by three natural gas plants in town.

"We already have chemicals in the air here," said Rocio Araujo, 18, who works at a coffeehouse and said she did not mind the PCB plan because the waste disposal business had infused new money into the oil economy. Beatrice Fabela, a barista at the coffee shop, grimaced when asked about the sludge. "I just hope it doesn't end up another Erin Brockovich story," she said. "I didn't know about that being there. It's kind of scary to think about."

Tom W. Jones III, a vice president of Waste Control Specialists, said the Hudson River sludge would be wrapped in heavy plastic, like a burrito, loaded onto open railcars and shipped to the landfill in trains at least 80 cars long. By the third year of the five-year plan, which has been approved by the E.P.A., two to three trains a week will arrive.

At the landfill, Mr. Jones said, excavators on platforms will rip open the bags and transfer the sludge to 110-ton mining trucks, starting in late June. The transfer will take place in a hangarlike building to shield the contaminated soil from the wind. The trucks will haul the sludge into a pit dug 75 feet into red clay and lined with two layers of heavy polyethylene. Then it will be covered over with at least three feet of clay.

Neil Carman, the director of the Lone Star Sierra Club, said the plan is fraught with dangers. A rail accident could spill contaminated soil along the route, and G. E. has so far refused to say what route the trains will take. Mr. Carman also said the winds whipping across the high plains of West Texas could spread the poisoned soil before it is buried.

"We could be a major public health concern and an environmental disaster if this should be spilled out," he said.

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