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Radioactive Waste is Good for You, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Rick Perry as Energy Secretary

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Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry’s blatant conflict of interest involving the Waste Control Specialists, LLC (WCS) radioactive waste dump in Andrews County, west Texas deserves to be seriously addressed during his U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing as President-elect Trump’s Energy Secretary-nominee. In fact, it adds to the long list of reasons he should not be confirmed, including his lack of depth on nuclear weapons issues,[2] at a very dangerous time of renewed nuclear arms race and Cold War-like rhetoric. [3]

Perry’s close ties to the oil and natural gas industries are better known. As reported by Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!:

Governor Perry has deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, including serving on the corporate boards of both Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics, two companies behind the Dakota Access pipeline. Both companies are owned by Texas billionaire Kelcy Warren. Perry joined the board of Energy Transfer Partners in February 2015, two weeks after he left office. That year, he received $365,000 from Warren’s companies. In 2015, Kelcy Warren also served as Rick Perry’s campaign finance chair during Perry’s presidential bid and donated $6 million to pro-Perry super PACs.[4]

But Perry had a similar relationship with another Texas billionaire, Harold Simmons, owner of WCS. And in return, under Gov. Perry, WCS’s lucrative radioactive waste dumping activities underwent major expansion.

Simmons died in 2013. But he had long been one of the very top national Republican campaign contributors (himself and his family described as a “Top Outside Group Donor,” “Overall Top Contributor,” “Top Individual Contributors: Hard Money,” and “Top individual contributors to Super PACs,” by the Center for Responsive Politics).[5]

An obituary in Forbes reported “He’ll be remembered mostly for…his investments in old-line ‘dirty’ industrial conglomerates and a Texas nuclear waste dump…[and] his massive funding of Republican politicians, including $4 million towards the ‘Swift Boat’ attacks on Sen. John Kerry and $30 million to Super PACs in the 2012 election cycle…”.[6]

The Forbes obituary added “Showing an omnipresent eagerness to invest in the dirtiest of industries, in recent years one of his primary foci had been Waste Control Specialists, which successfully beat back opposition from environmentalists to open a low-level radioactive waste dump in Andrews, Texas, near the New Mexico border. So far thousands of tons of waste have been buried there.”

Simmons was a consistent violator of environmental justice. Prior to targeting the predominantly Latin American region of Andrews County, Texas with WCS, he had unsuccessfully targeted the low income Mexican American town of Sierra Blanca, Texas, on the border with Mexico, for a radioactive waste dump.[7]

Simmons, described as the “King of Superfund Sites,” was also a major contributor to Gov. Perry, with registered donations putting the amount at $620,000.[8]

In the December 14, 2016 interview on Democracy Now!, host Amy Goodman questioned Forrest Wilder, editor-in-chief of the Texas Observer, about Perry’s connections to Simmons and WCS:

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of the private nuclear waste facility in Texas? Of course, Department of Energy doesn’t only deal with oil and gas. Forrest?

FORREST WILDER: Right. You know, I think this is—there’s a long backstory there, but the short answer is that Harold Simmons was a—he passed away recently. He was a Dallas billionaire. He’s the guy who funded the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads, the ads in 2004 that attacked John Kerry’s military service. This is [a] guy [who] is obviously very wealthy and a major business player. Through a lot of effort, lobbying effort, and, I would say, political contributions, he was able to get radioactive waste disposal in Texas privatized in 2003 with Perry’s help. Then, in subsequent years, through our environmental agency, they got all the permits they wanted, despite the fact that state engineers and geologists were warning that the radioactive waste dump would leak into groundwater, according to the state’s own—the company’s own modeling. Basically, Waste Control Specialists, such as the Simmons’ company, got everything they wanted. And I think that this is maybe one of the really classic examples of a kind of style of crony capitalism in Texas that Rick Perry was very adept at. The dump is up and running now and, in fact, is now being looked at—and the company very much wants this—to become a site for storage of high-level nuclear waste, the spent nuclear fuel rods from reactors around the country. So, there’s—it’s possible that the Department of Energy will be taking up this issue at some later date. And I think you’ve got enormous conflicts of interest there for Rick Perry and this whole kind of problematic backstory that folks should really be paying attention to as we kind of go forward with that issue.[9]

In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) – the very agency Perry wanted to abolish in his run for president, only he couldn’t remember its name during a candidates’ debate[10] – is more than poised to enter into a multi-billion dollar, taxpayer funded business deal with WCS.

DOE wants to establish a centralized, or consolidated, so-called “interim” storage site for highly radioactive, commercial irradiated nuclear fuel. (Critics have dubbed such proposals de facto permanent parking lot dumps, as the waste would likely remain there indefinitely into the future – likely decades, perhaps centuries, and maybe even forevermore.) From December 23, 2015[11] to October 31, 2016, DOE conducted a public comment proceeding, in an effort to establish the definition of what “consent-based siting” for such a centralized interim storage site would look like. It held several public meetings around the country (although, not in or anywhere near Texas), and received more than 10,000 public comments, the vast majority critical of and opposed to such proposals as WCS’s.[12]

DOE has long leaned toward minimizing the meaning of consent, such as limiting it to approval by the governor of a targeted state, and perhaps also the approval of the county government hosting the dump. DOE itself has long maintained that Andrews County, Texas is just such a “consent-based site” for centralized interim storage, citing some local elected officials who support the idea. Could such support have anything to do with WCS-revenue sharing by local municipalities?

There is one more element of Harold Simmons’ business plan, a flourish that shows his real genius: he might actually get the citizens of Andrews County to loan him money to develop his waste disposal site. In a May 2009 bond election, Waste Control Specialists won the right to borrow $75 million from the county. The election was decided by just three votes (642 for, 639 against). The argument made by WCS was that credit markets had dried up, and the money was needed to keep construction on pace. With the county getting 5 percent of WCS’ revenue (and the state another 5 percent), WCS estimates that the county this year will receive $3 million to $4 million. The bonds are in limbo right now only because two sisters, Melodye and Peggy Pryor, have filed suit in El Paso contesting the election. (emphasis added)[13]

However, DOE has conveniently ignored the significant level of opposition of local residents, not to mention that of statewide environmental and public interest groups, such as Public Citizen, SEED (Sustainable Energy & Economic Development) Coalition, and numerous others.[14]

The WCS parking lot dump would also launch unprecedented numbers of high-level radioactive waste shipments, mostly by rail, but also potentially by road and waterway. But DOE, invoking the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution (as if high-level radioactive waste is a commodity!), has made clear it is not seeking consent from transport corridor communities – including most of the Lower 48 — for this shipment of potential Mobile Chernobyls, Dirty Bombs on Wheels, and Floating Fukushimas, past the homes of millions of Americans.[15]

The very person who ran DOE’s “consent-based siting” proceeding, declared WCS itself “consent-based,” rejected the need to get consent from transport corridor communities, and very narrowly construed the definition of “consent” – DOE’s acting assistant secretary in the Office of Nuclear Energy since July 2015, John Kotek —  has now shown his true colors. Kotek will now serve at the nuclear power industry’s lobbying and PR HQ in Washington, D.C. – the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) — as vice president for policy development and public affairs.[16]

Adding to the Orwellian word origin, the Nukespeak[17] notion of “consent-based siting” was brought to life by the Obama administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.[18] The panel, which emphasized the need to solve the radioactive waste problem, so the industry could get on with the business of making more, was housed, ironically enough, at DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. The BRC’s staff director was none other than Kotek.

After Harold Simmons’ death, his daughters took over day-to-day operations of WCS, according to the company.[19] This family ownership reportedly continued into 2016.[20]

WCS’s risk-taking-to-make-a-buck has not abated, either. After the Valentine’s Day, 2014 barrel burst at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico (which severely contaminated the underground facility, shutting down WIPP operations for nearly three years, and likely to cost over time up to $2 billion to recover from; internally exposed two-dozen workers at the surface, through inhalation to their lungs, to ultra-hazardous alpha particles, significantly increasing their risk for lung cancer; and caused fallout to the environment downwind), Los Alamos National Lab (LANL, the culprit in the burst, by inappropriately mixing chemically-reactive ingredients – including organic kitty litter — in the same barrel) rushed a large number of trans-uranic waste barrels, at risk of bursting themselves, to WCS for “interim” storage. WCS placed the barrels in concrete over-packs, their exteriors painted black, and left them exposed, in the open air, to bake in the hot, west Texas summer sun. LANL had to intervene, urging WCS to at least cover the at-risk over-packs with a thin layer of soil, to prevent one or more of the barrels from overheating and bursting. By contrast, similar barrels at LANL are stored in a refrigerated facility with filters to safeguard against bursts and environmental releases.[21]

And WCS’s expansion schemes continue to the present, on steroids. In April 2016, WCS officially applied to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a license to construct and operate a centralized interim storage site for irradiated nuclear fuel. WCS has made clear it will only enter into this centralized interim storage contract with DOE, so long as DOE (that is, the U.S. taxpayer) bears sole and full liability for anything that goes wrong.

A coalition of environmental groups has challenged the legality of WCS’s parking lot dump application, as violating the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, as Amended.[22] But NRC, an agency infamous for dangerously colluding with the industry it is supposed to regulate, is proceeding with its environmental assessment of the application regardless.

Gov. Perry’s willingness to appoint loyalists to key decision-making bodies significantly benefitted his campaign contributor Simmons at critical decision-making points for WCS’s expansion:

But then as now, the final decision to grant a license rests with three TCEQ [Texas Council on Environmental Quality] commissioners who are appointed by the governor. And Simmons has been a major campaign contributor to Governor Rick Perry. Registered donations put the amount at $620,000. (It should be noted that Simmons gives generously to many Republican causes and candidates. In the 2004 election cycle, he gave $3 million to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which helped defeat John Kerry by calling into question his service record in Vietnam.) During WCS’ application process, three members of the eight-member review team quit: engineer Encarnación “Chon” Serna Jr., geologist Patricia Bobeck, and technical writer and team spokesperson Glenn Lewis.

Lewis, the only one of the three who would speak on record, says professional advisories regarding the unsuitability of the site were ignored by upper management in the rush to grant licenses. The team’s concerns largely centered on the proximity of the WCS site to two aquifers and the high possibility of radioactive waste leaking into groundwater. “Issues about the unsuitability of the site were never limited to concern about the Ogallala,” Lewis says. “They were first and foremost about any groundwater present at the site. Any groundwater at the site is unacceptable. Water to a radionuclide is like the Autobahn. It’s a very fast path.”

In 2008, the TCEQ commissioners voted 2 to 1 to grant WCS a byproducts materials license. Commissioners Buddy Garcia and Bryan Shaw voted in favor, and Larry Soward voted against. Soward said at the time that a hearing should be allowed to fully air arguments regarding the safety of the site. In 2009, the commissioners voted 2 to 0 on the LLRW [Low-Level Radioactive Waste] license, expanding WCS’ customer base. Commissioners Garcia and Shaw voted to approve the license. Soward abstained. Less than a year later, Soward stepped down from his post.

TCEQ executive director Glenn Shankle, who served as the liaison between the review team and the commissioners, left his position shortly after the issuance of the byproduct material license in May 2008. Records obtained by the Texas Observer reveal that Shankle had several meetings with WCS officials, attorneys, and lobbyists during his tenure. He was visited at his office at least once by Kent Hance, a WCS investor and chancellor of the Texas Tech University System. Six months after leaving TCEQ, Shankle became a lobbyist for WCS.[23]

The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest in the U.S., and one of the largest in the world, extending from Texas to South Dakota, providing vital drinking and irrigation water for millions in numerous Great Plains states (it underlies an area of 174,000 square miles, in portions of eight states: South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas). As reported:

Andrews County, according to the TWDB [Texas Water Development Board] revised maps, is underlain by four aquifers. In addition to the Dockum, there are three major aquifers: Ogallala (or High Plains), Pecos Valley (or Cenozoic Pecos Alluvium), and Edwards-Trinity Plateau. The TWDB and USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] websites both state that the Edwards-Trinity Plateau Aquifer is hydraulically connected to four major aquifers, including the Ogallala, and several minor aquifers, including the Dockum.

To recap: first the boundary dispute involved one aquifer under the site. Then the revised maps showed it was another aquifer. Then WCS said no, it was actually a third, and it was briney. But both the state board in charge of aquifers and the USGS say there is interchange among the aquifers. If there is hydraulic communication between aquifers in Andrews County, then disputes over the boundaries of the Ogallala Aquifer at the WCS site are beside the point.[24]

If the Ogallala Lakota expression “Mni Wiconi” – “Water Is Life” in Sioux language, the rallying cry for the water protectors opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at Cannon Ball, North Dakota on the Missouri River at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation – is true, then the dirty, dangerous, and expensive[25] industries that Gov. Perry most closely associates with threaten all that at WCS.

As with fossil fuel interests, so too with radioactive waste profiteering under Gov. Perry. As the Democracy Now! interview revealed:

FORREST WILDER:…He [Perry] has been interventionist at times. And often the pattern seems to be, you know, sit back, let the markets work—sort of a free market ideologue in that respect, except he’ll intervene often when there is a special interest, a campaign donor, somebody that needs a favor. But the regulatory apparatus in Texas is very, very deferential to the fossil fuel industry. And in that respect, I think Perry was maybe a little bit more extreme than some other governors. What he did is he appointed people who were extremely loyal to him and who were willing to kind of let the fossil fuel industry, whether that’s oil and gas or coal or utilities, sort of do their thing. So, that’s kind of his—that’s his record as governor. So—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to—

FORREST WILDER: —perhaps that’s what Trump sees in him.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read for you what your late colleague, Texas columnist Molly Ivins, wrote about then-Governor Rick Perry in 2002. She wrote, “…interesting role of coincidence in the life of Gov. Goodhair. Last summer, the Guv appointed an Enron executive to the state’s Public Utilities Commission and, the next day, Perry got a check for $25,000 from [Enron CEO] Ken Lay. He explained this, to everyone’s satisfaction, as being ‘totally coincidental.'” Forrest Wilder?

FORREST WILDER: Yeah, there’s been a lot of coincidences. You know, that was early on. And the pattern has repeated itself over and over and over again. You know, we were talking earlier about the—there was a—about 10 years ago, there was a big boom in new coal plants. There was, I think, 18, in all, that were proposed, 11 by the state’s major utility. There was—Perry was rolling in cash from this company and from a former chairman and basically interests. And, you know, all of a sudden he issues an executive order to fast-track the permitting for these coal plants—and a coincidence, I guess, that there was campaign contributions that he and others in the Republican Party were receiving at that time. Plenty of examples like that, these strange coincidences of money and political opportunity.[26]

WCS’s bid to become this country’s parking lot dump for up to 40,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste – more than half of the commercial irradiated nuclear fuel that currently exists in the U.S. — is likely its biggest get-rich-quick scheme yet. That’s really saying something, for a dump that already accepts all categories of so-called “low” level radioactive waste from DOE, as well as commercial atomic reactors in 36 states.

As Energy Secretary, Rick Perry would have a major conflict of interest in awarding a multi-billion dollar contract – paid for by taxpayers, who would also shoulder all liability in the event of disastrous radioactivity releases — to the radioactive waste dump that he played such a central role in bringing into existence in the first place. The revolving door between government and the WCS radioactive waste dump would then come full circle, if Gov. Perry were to be confirmed as Energy Secretary. His nomination should be blocked by the U.S. Senate.

Notes.

[1] With apologies to Toxic Sludge Is Good for You and Dr. Strangelove.

[2] http://www.beyondnuclear.org/nuclear-weapons/2016/12/27/rick-perry-as-energy-secretary-may-be-pressed-to-resume-nucl.html

[3] http://www.beyondnuclear.org/nuclear-weapons/

[4]https://www.democracynow.org/2016/12/14/rick_perry_trumps_energy_secretary_pick

[5] http://www.opensecrets.org/search?q=Harold+Simmons

[6] http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2013/12/30/texas-billionaire-harold-simmons-dies-called-obama-most-dangerous-man-in-america/#58875bb57abc

[7] http://www.umich.edu/~snre492/blanca.html

[8] http://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2010/february/harold-simmons-is-dallas-most-evil-genius/

[9]https://www.democracynow.org/2016/12/14/trump_picks_perry_to_head_energy

[10] http://www.beyondnuclear.org/home/2016/12/15/former-texas-governor-rick-perry-could-head-the-oops-departm.html

[11] http://www.beyondnuclear.org/radioactive-waste-whatsnew/2015/12/23/the-nuclear-grinch-who-stole-xmas-doe-launches-consent-based.html

[12] See, for example, the public comments posted at http://www.beyondnuclear.org/radioactive-waste-whatsnew/ from late July to early August, 2016.

[13] http://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2010/february/harold-simmons-is-dallas-most-evil-genius/3/

[14] http://nonuclearwasteaqui.org/

[15] http://www.beyondnuclear.org/waste-transportation/2016/11/10/radioactive-waste-webinar-this-evening-on-hlrw-centralized-i.html

[16] https://www.nei.org/News-Media/Media-Room/News-Releases/Nuclear-Energy-Institute-Senior-Executive-Changes

[17] http://www.consortiumnews.com/2011/031511b.html

[18] https://cybercemetery.unt.edu/archive/brc/20120620211605/http://brc.gov/ . Cybercemetery is itself ironic – the BRC lost institutional control of its own website, brc.gov, shortly after the panel issued its Final Report in Jan. 2012. (That is, the website quit working! The dead link had to be called to DOE’s attention by Nuclear Energy Info. Service of Chicago.) But the hazards of radioactive waste last forevermore.

[19] http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060013121

[20] http://www.greenmountaindaily.com/tag/waste-control-specialists-llc/

[21] Communication to author, by LANL tour guide, at LANL interim storage facility for at-risk barrels, Los Alamos, NM, October 19, 2016.

[22] http://www.beyondnuclear.org/radioactive-waste-whatsnew/2016/10/27/despite-setbacks-beyond-nuclear-and-allies-continue-to-chall.html

[23] http://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2010/february/harold-simmons-is-dallas-most-evil-genius/3/

[24] Ibid.

[25]http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/356082/6186633/1268920948460/BNDDE2009-new.pdf?token=S9wWWg2sgqy4Clu8Mc%2FKgUg5F9k%3D

[26]https://www.democracynow.org/2016/12/14/trump_picks_perry_to_head_energy

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