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The Dumping Ground

RadWaste and Texas’ Future

by LARAY POLK

"It took us six years to get legislation on this passed in Austin, but now we’ve got it all passed. We first had to change the law to where a private company can own a license (to handle radioactive waste), and we did that. Then we got another law passed that said they can only issue one license. Of course, we were the only ones that applied." –Harold Simmons, Valhi Inc.

How do you get people to vote for radioactive waste to be dumped in Texas in close proximity to the Ogallala and Dockum aquifers? And how do you also get the same community to agree to bankroll the project’s $75 million buildout costs? You sell it as a prosperity issue.

The promise of future prosperity is more hopeful than discussing point-blank realities. Namely, that the source of prosperity is a dumpsite in west Texas, near the border of New Mexico, that has the potential for receiving varying grades of radioactive waste from 36 states. And the geographical area in question has three inherent properties that have scientists, engineers and activists worried: red clay, aquifers and high winds.

On May 9, voters from Andrews County went to the booth to participate in a bond election, paid for by Waste Control Specialists (WCS), to decide whether or not their county will pay for such a dumpsite. 642 people voted affirmative and 639 against.

A discrepancy of three votes has decided a crucial decision that could have far-ranging affects on all present and future residents of Texas and beyond. According to business interests involved in the project, financing through normal channels would require a two to three year wait in the current economic downturn. With Andrews County paying for the initial costs, construction is planned to begin this summer.

The preliminary funding hurdle has been cleared, but central to receiving radioactive waste is a license granted by state regulators. Earlier this year, WCS received their license from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). It allows them to accept waste from Texas and Vermont as well as from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Waste accepted from the DOE may originate from anywhere in the country.

Proper licensing coupled with immediate financing is a boon for WCS. If they proceed as planned, they will capitalize on South Carolina’s decision in July to shutter its low-level radioactive waste operations. The Texas site stands to profit by absorbing the radioactive waste from the 36 states that South Carolina will no longer be servicing.

And the recent move by the Obama administration to put a hold on the Yucca Mountain repository may leave the door open for the proposed Texas dumpsite to become an alternative location for nuclear reactor waste that had been previously destined for Nevada.

While WCS is licensed to accept Class A, B, and C waste (A is the least hazardous), they currently cannot accept waste outside the compact with Vermont. That would require the approval of eight compact commissioners, six from Texas and two from Vermont.

This arrangement, however, is rife with conflicts of interest. The commissioners in Texas are appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. WCS is owned by Valhi. Valhi is owned by Harold Simmons, a major Republican party and Perry donor. Other campaign contributions include Simmons’ financial support for attack ads on the two most recent Democratic presidential candidates. He helped fund both the swiftboating of John Kerry and the ads by the American Issues Project that questioned Barack Obama’s relationship with Bill Ayers.

Valhi’s rush to buildout in Andrews County, ironically, is tied to receiving federal stimulus money for processing the PCBs from the Hudson River.

***

This issue of an expanding radioactive waste dumpsite and corollary ones will not be going away any time soon as Texas has its own dependency on such sites. In addition to being home to two commercial nuclear reactors, eight additional entities are currently seeking licenses to build reactors in Texas.

WCS has been licensed to operate Andrews County’s radioactive waste dumpsite for 15 years. In that length of time, varying grades of radioactive refuse could make its way underground in Texas, releasing radionuclides into the Ogallala and Dockum aquifers. The voters of Andrews County have spoken but theirs should not be the final voice on this issue.

For further reading and updates, see No Bonds for Billionaires and Nuke Free Texas.

LARAY POLK is a multimedia artist and writer who lives in Dallas,Texas. She can be contacted at laraypolk@me.com.